Friday, February 26, 2010

Caption Contest #12

Friday, February 26, 2010
Hey Kids! It's the Bill of the Birds Caption Contest #12! Submit your mostest cleverest caption for the image above and you could be the winner of an autographed copy of Bird Watching For Dummies a book SO good you can't even find it for sale anymore. It's rarer than 30 seconds of ivory-billed woodpecker video.

Bust out of your winter torpor and start clickety-clacking those computer keys! Need some inspirato? Here's an example of a caption one might submit:

This is a still from the new movie Charging Rhino, Punctured Kidney starring Sean Bean and Sharon Stone.

Got it? Good! Make sure you tell us who you are, so we can contact you if you win, baby! We'll pick a winner on Wednesday, March 3.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Bill of the Birds

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Phoebe's First Alligator

Wednesday, February 24, 2010
An idealized portrayal of Phoebe's first alligator.

I'm taking a bit of artistic license here in using the above image of an alligator to represent my daughter Phoebe's first encounter with one of these large aquatic, carnivorous reptiles. The actual photo of her life 'gator is the one below, which Ms. Phoebe digiscoped herself. [Special thanks to the eagle-eyed Lisa White, a native Florida cracker, who spotted this gator for us in a canal at Merritt Island NWR.]

The actual first gator.

It was not a very satisfying look at the first gator. It only had its head above water. After about three minutes, it removed even that small bit of itself, slowing sinking into the murky water. The three of us spent the rest of the morning driving around, certain we'd see another gator—perhaps one out on a bank soaking in the sun on this very cool Florida morning. But we were denied.

So we went to the beach.

Soaking our feet in the chilly Atlantic—they went numb in about 30 seconds. Photo by Lisa White.

Two days later Phoebe and I were headed back to the beach when we saw a turn off for Eco Pond Road. I'd remembered seeing and photographing a massive alligator on that road two years before, so we turned off for a side gator hunt. Just two miles later, I spotted our gator, lounging in the back of a lagoon, covered in duckweed. I told Phoebe to get out and stand on the bank in front of the gator (which was at least 60 feet away) so I could take her photo with her first look at a complete American alligator.
The gator is half in and half out of the shade along the far bank of the lagoon.

She agreed to pose for the photo, but could not help cringing when I raised the camera to my eye and said "Awesome! He's coming closer!"

A closer look at Phoebe's first full-view gator.

After manatees, seeing an alligator was next on Phoebe's most-wanted list. The fact that we also added bobcat and armadillo was icing on the already rich and delicious cake.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank my good friends at The Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival for inviting Phoebe and me down to Titusville, and for making us feel so welcome. It was an unforgettable experience for us and it reminded me how completely lucky I am to be a Dad.
Our last gator of the trip, spotted somewhere near Christmas, FL. That's Phoebe being chomped.

Monday, February 22, 2010

You're the Gull for Me!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Some interesting courtship behavior by ring-billed gulls which I videotaped (actually digi-video) at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in late January 2010. I've seen ring-billeds do a lot of things, but I'd never seen this courtship display, which I believe is known as "the long call."

Clearly he is saying "You're the gull for me."

Friday, February 19, 2010

Bad Weather Birds

Friday, February 19, 2010

Bad winter weather here in southeastern Ohio often brings an unusual bird to the feeding station. This winter we've had a handful of uncommon birds coming into the yard to check out the feeders, probably attracted by all the noise and activity of our regular feeder visitors. A lone pine siskin has stopped by, several tree sparrows have too. But no red-breasted nuthatches, redpolls, or evening grosbeaks have appeared, sadly.

This particular visitor is one that often confuses people, and this head-on view doesn't make it any easier. It's an adult female red-winged blackbird (note the peach-colored throat). The heavy streaking might suggest a finch or siskin or even sparrow. But it's a blackbird, and a hungry one at that. After gorging on some sunflower hearts, Ms. Peachthroat took off, headed south.

It won't be long until we start seeing male red-winged blackbirds returning early to set up their territories. I always know it's truly spring when I hear their first conk-a-reeee!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

This Birding Life Podcast Episode 25!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Episode #25 of my podcast "This Birding Life" is now available for downloading or streaming in Podcast Central on the Bird Watcher's Digest website. And it's available in the iTunes store (for free). Simply search on iTunes for "This Birding Life."

This episode features Bo Beolens of fame reading his article "An Englishman in Florida" which appears in the March/April 2010 issue of BWD.

Bo Beolens birding in Panama. Image courtesy John Afdem.

You can sample the March/April 2010 issue of BWD here with our special digital preview.

Bo reads an extended version of the article for this episode of TBL and adds in his own bit of stand-up comedy at the beginning, which, if you know him, is quintessential Bo Beolens.

I hope you enjoy this episode of "This Birding Life," which celebrated its third birthday on February 6, 2010. Hard to believe our little podcast is already three years old! It seems like only yesterday that I was fumbling around with cords and a microphone, trying to record the first episode...

As always the entire staff here at the international headquarters of the media empire that is "This Birding Life" welcomes your comments, rejoinders, and exclamations of incredulity. Please share them via the comments box on this post and we'll discuss them at our next board meeting, which I believe is being held in Fiji this year.

Thanks for listening and I--err WE--will see you out there with the birds!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tongue-tied Tuesday

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Friday, February 12, 2010

Surrounded by Giants

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Space Coast Birding Festival always treats book authors well. They invite us to do talks, lead field trips, and they make sure our books are available for sale in the huge vendor hall. The best thing, however, is the schedule of regular and convenient book signings in the Friends of Merritt Island NWR booth.

Phoebe and I were asked by Sandee from FOMI to do a book signing for The Young Birder's Guide. (Phoebe and her elementary school classmates helped me to create The Young Birder's Guide.)

This image, taken by our friend and festival volunteer Ray Scory, shows Phoebe diligently signing the book above her photo.

There are two things I love about this image. One, the concentration on her face and in her writing hand. And, two, the fact that she's surrounded by images of birding's field guide giants. From right to left, see if you can pick out the images and/or names of Roger Tory Peterson, David Sibley, Pete Dunne, and Kenn Kaufman.

It's always a treat to get to do a book signing. But getting to do one with the Phoebster was extra special.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Event Alert: Rockin' Waterfowl Weekend

Wednesday, February 10, 2010
That's me on stage in Hoover Auditorium at the 2009 Midwest Birding Symposium. Photo by Ric McArthur.

The two activities that I've pursued and enjoyed most of my life are bird watching and playing music. I started watching birds at about age 7, but I remember playing music with my parents when I was even younger. I try to take advantage of every opportunity I get to do either one of them. Occasionally I get to do both, which is truly sweet.

When I'm invited to a birding festival to give talks or lead trips, I often take my guitar along to play a song or two after my program. This is usually received at least politely and sometimes goes over fairly well. Julie and I have occasionally done a program called "Music of the Birds" that is solely bird and nature images set to music.

Playing music with Jessie Munson at New River.

For a couple of the events I/we attend annually (namely the Potholes & Prairie Birding Festival in North Dakota and The New River Birding Festival in West Virginia), we hold an informal music session that's part performance and part open mic. It's fun!

The ranch jam at Pipestem Creek in North Dakota. Photo by Ric McArthur.

You might be surprised at how many musicians and passionate music lovers there are in the birding community.

The Swinging Orangutangs at a Moroccan-themed New Year's Eve gig in 2009. Photo by Phoebe T.

Later this month our entire band, The Swinging Orangutangs, will be playing a show on the opening night (Friday, Feb 26) of The Waterfowl Symposium sponsored by The Ohio Ornithological Society and Columbus Audubon. Dates for the event are February 26–28, 2010 at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center in Columbus, Ohio. Online registration is available on the Columbus Audubon site.
The Orangutangs on stage at The Marietta Brewing Company. Photo by Shila Wilson

Here is some descriptive text about the Friday night show from Ann Oliver of the OOS:
On Friday evening, The Swinging Orangutangs (a six-piece rock/funk dance band which includes OOS members Julie Zickefoose and Bill Thompson III) will perform a benefit concert. Bring your dancing shoes and leave your hiking boots in the car! We'll have appetizers, beer, wine, and a taste of the Middle East. Why the Middle East theme? Friday evening is a benefit for Nature Iraq, hence the special food theme (but we'll have regular appetizers, too, for non-adventurous noshers).

You may recall, Ohio Army National Guardsman, and birder-extraordinaire Randy Rogers, did bird surveys on his Al Asad base in Iraq, as well as fundraising on behalf of Nature Iraq. In fact, ALL of Ohio backed Randy and this cause: several thousand dollars of donations were raised to support NI's conservation efforts to restore Mesopotamian marshes drained by the prior Iraqi regime. Randy has been working overtime on behalf of NI since he's returned from Iraq, from guest lecturing around the Buckeye State, to working behind the scenes organizing the Waterfowl Symposium.

Also: Friday evening, we'll have bird-themed beer: Mendocino Brewing Company's offerings such as Blue Heron Pale Ale, Red Tail Ale, White Hawk IPA, Eye of the Hawk Ale, and Black Hawk Stout will be available for your enjoyment. Drink, and bird, responsibly!
Mendocino Brewing Company is supporting the Waterfowl Symposium with a donation of these brews.

FYI: if you can't attend the entire weekend ($80 for Friday-Sunday), it's just $10 to attend on Friday night! Sign up your friends, family, and co-workers too!

Saturday at The Waterfowl Symposium will feature a number of interesting lectures on waterfowl and related themes followed by an evening banquet and keynote featuring Dr. Azzam Alwash of Nature Iraq.

On Sunday we'll all go birding at various Columbus hotspots.

So it's going to be a good time with good friends, good music, good food, good beer, and good birding. Hope to see you there!

I've imposed my musical will on the OOS for many years running. Photo by Steve Free.

Monday, February 8, 2010

When the Birding Gets Slow

Monday, February 8, 2010

Phoebe and I made a bunch of appearances at middle schools in north Brevard County near Titusville as part of the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival. We were trying to encourage some of the students—all near Phoebe's age—to consider birding as a fun, cool thing to do. We gave a half-dozen talks and lead a half-dozen walks. And I believe we made a few new birders.

The talks all went really well (I am so proud of the Phoebster for taking to public speaking so easily) and so did most of the walks. After all, it's hard not to see lots of birds in January in Florida. But it happens...

One of the schools we visited had a fairly bad bird walk due to an almost complete lack of birds. Oh sure we had some distant pepper specks int he sky (vultures) and some flyover American robins plus a few returning purple martins, but other than that we struck out. And I gotta tell you that I can keep any group of kids interested and under control as long as there are birds to show them. Preferably perched birds that we can get the spotting scope on. Even the rowdiest bully (of which we encountered none at the schools we visited) will go "Wow! That's AWEsome!" when shown a zoomed-in look at a northern mockingbird or any other species for that matter.
We scanned in all directions. Not even a single mocker was present!

But at this school it was the doldrums of the afternoon with an approaching storm and the birds were all taking a siesta. Consequently the kids were becoming restless. After all it was Friday afternoon and this was their last class of the week. One group of boys began showing off by reenacting scenes from a war movie or video game. Girls began gathering into small groups to chat about the boys. Only a few students stuck with Phoebe and me, asking questions about birds, the book, us. The teacher began to tire of trying to keep control. I sensed my grip on the class slipping away.

That's when Mother Nature stepped in to save us. Someone screamed "AHHHH! SNAKE!!" and we watched as a tiny brown snake with a pale orange and black pattern on its back slithered into the middle of a group of 8th graders.
I'm glad it was a small, calm snake. I would've hated to try to wrestle an excaped exotic boa constrictor.

The snake quickly realized it was surrounded, so it raced into the only dark hole it could find: inside the sole of a girl's tennis show. Lucky for the snake, which one young man shyly ID'd as a juvenile corn snake, the girl remained calm while we removed her shoe.

We all got a look at the snake curled up inside the open tread of the sole. The "Cool!" and "Sweet!" and "Awesome" comments drifted through the sultry afternoon air.
Phoebe was not so sure this was fun.

After everyone got a good look, I gently removed the snake and let it go in the grass.
Trying to coax the corn snake out of the shoe sole.

We strolled back to the school, retrieved the loaner binoculars (many heartfelt thanks for the bins to Eagle Optics and The Enchanted Forest), answered a few final questions, and said our goodbyes. Phoebe and I signed a copy of "The Young Birder's Guide" for the school's library, and hit the road. I'll bet that book gets checked out a few times this spring.

We'd seen fewer than five bird species on this bird walk, but, thanks to a snake in the grass, it was still a big success.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Phoebe's First Manatee

Thursday, February 4, 2010
Phoebe's lifer West Indian manatee at Blue Springs State Park.

As soon as we got off the plane at the Orlando airport and secured our rental car, Phoebe and I took off after her most-wanted Florida experience: seeing a manatee. I knew from previous experience that Blue Springs State Park was one of the best places to find these gentle aquatic mammals, so that's where we headed (after a quick nosh at Steak & Shake!).

Sure enough, as soon as we parked the car and walked down to the edge of spring-fed Blue Springs Run where it meets the St. John's River, Phoebe added West Indian manatee to her mammal life list.

The park is a designated manatee refuge and the park's name (Blue Springs) is the reason the manatees are here in the winter. Warm water from the springs heats the river and manatees need warm water to survive. The very cold weather of early January had been hard on the manatees in this part of Florida.

We walked the boardwalk for the next two hours, looking at manatees, spotting birds, marveling at live oaks draped in Spanish moss, and drinking in the warm Florida sunshine.

That morning when we left Ohio, it was snowing hard with three inches of snow on the ground, temperatures dropping. So, though Floridians on the boardwalk were bundled up and decrying the cold snap, 68ºF felt like beach weather to us.

Me: "We're not in Ohio anymore, Phoebster!"
Phoebe: "Yeah and if we were, I'd be in algebra class right now!"

The happy manatee spotter, Phoebe Linnea.

Many of our birding pals at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival made the pilgrimage to Blue Springs to see the manatees. We had a total of more than 20 manatees during our visit. It was as satisfying as it was awesome.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Amazed by a Forster's Tern

Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Standing on the dune along the Cape Canaveral National Seashore, I watched a foraging Forster's tern working the water just beyond the breaking waves. It flew parallel to the beach, heading north into the wind, looking down at the water for the silver flicker of sunlight reflecting off fish scales.

Catching sight of just such a flash, it stops, planting one wingtip in the invisible air, then cartwheeling into a dive.

Down like a lead arrow, bill-first it plunges. Splash!

Springing up from one Earth element into another, the tern shakes itself, sending small jewels of wet back to the foam. Nothing small and silvery wriggles in its bill. Nothing to show for such mastery of air and water.

And the tern turns again into the wind, pumping forward on white wings dusted with gray.

I watch from the sand—earthbound—slack-jawed and stirred at the wonder of it all.