Thursday, July 29, 2010

Weird White-tailed Grackle

Thursday, July 29, 2010
This weird-looking dude showed up at the platform feeder a couple of weeks ago. He's a leucistic common grackle. What caused his tail to be white is anyone's guess. Was it a flaw in his genetic material? The result of an injury or some dietary anomaly while a nestling? A fashion statement?

It's been a big blackbird year around the farm with larger-than-normal numbers of red-winged blackbirds and common grackles hanging around, visiting the feeders, foraging on the lawn.

I always enjoy it when we have these "marker birds" around—birds with a noticeable and often odd physical attribute. We've had bluebirds with a drooping wing or messed-up alula feathers. We've had a partially white junco. For one winter we hosted a tufted titmouse with an overgrown upper mandible. These are all birds that are easy to notice and keep track of because their physical anomalies make them stand out as individuals.

The current issue of Bird Watcher's Digest features an article about a juvenile rose-breasted grosbeak that lacked a beak! If the photos of this rose-breasted no-beak don't freak you out, try watching the video in our digital edition. Freaky!

By the way, here's your obscure fact for the day: Albinism in birds is caused by an absence of melanin in the feathers and body. This usually results in birds that are totally white with red or pink eyes. Leucism is caused by uneven distribution of melanin in the feathers and body, resulting in pale-looking birds or birds with patches of white.

Our white-tailed common grackle (which is leucistic, not albino) stayed around for a few days and then moved on. But if he returns, we'll certainly notice.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Connection Between Birds & Music

Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Bird song inspires us. Who wouldn't want to be able to sing like a brown thrasher?

I grew up in a family of musicians and singers. When bird watching hit our family in the early 1970s and my mom started going out regularly with a local bird club, I had no idea of the intimate, natural connection between birds and music. Bird watching at the time was almost socially unacceptable—think Miss Jane Hathaway from The Beverly Hillbillies. But as we got to know more and more birders, we began to notice that many of them also had a deep love of music, or perhaps were musicians themselves.

Humans have always been inspired by the music of singing birds. And I've hypothesized that a musician's ears are naturally tuned for the sounds of nature, and vice versa.

I've always been interested in birder/musicians and have many dear friends whom I would include under this heading, including, mi esposa Julie Zickefoose, and pals Jeffrey Gordon, Joe Parisi, Chris Santella, Jessie Munson, Ernie Hoffert, John Munson, John Acorn, Patti Alleva, Jeff Bouton, Steve Carbol, Luke Dempsey, Mike DiGiorgio, Debby Kaspari, Mimi Hart, Steve McCarthy, Sheri Williamson, Tom Wood, and Jason Kessler. I could go on and on...including famous musicians rumored to be into birds such as Neil Peart of Rush, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Sir Paul McCartney, and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull.

When I learned that Jonathan Meiberg, the leader of the indie-rock band Shearwater, had a serious interest in birds, I made a mental note to contact him. When I saw that the band would be passing through Ohio on its spring 2010 tour, I emailed an interview inquiry to the band's contact e-mail and was pleasantly surprised when Jonathan replied right away. We made plans to meet at The Beachland Tavern in Cleveland so I could interview Jonathan for my podcast "This Birding Life."

Shearwater's sound check.

When I got to The Beachland, the three bands on the tour—Hospital Ships, Wye Oak, and Shearwater were all loading equipment into the venue. I met Jonathan and we arranged to talk after their sound check.

The Beachland Tavern basement.

After sound check, we went downstairs to the basement and what passes for the dressing room for the bands. It was far too loud in that space for an interview with all the bustling musicians and humming equipment, so we adjourned to a small storage room. Here's a peak at it, just to give you an idea of how totally glamorous is the life of a touring rock musician.

Our interview space.

In this little storage room, with the other bands' sound checks thundering on the stage above us and the beer and soda flowing in tubes past us along one wall, headed upstairs to thirsty patrons, we had a nice hour-long chat.

You can hear the interview, which is episode 27 of This Birding Life both in the iTunes store (for free) and at TBL's home at Podcast Central. In the interview we talk about a whole array of topics, including the music-birds connection, birding on the road, on-stage hearing protection, life birds, and how attached one can become to a cheap travel guitar.

Shearwater's Jonathan Meiberg sat in for a song on Wye Oak's set.

After the interview, I headed upstairs for a quick bite and a frosty-cold glass of hoppy/malty goodness, then it was showtime, baby! Hospital Ships took the stage first and played a nice set, followed by the Baltimore-based duo Wye Oak. I really dug Wye Oak. Throughout the evening band members sat in with one another on certain songs. It was clear that these folks had lots of mutual admiration going one.

Throughout the show, the members of Shearwater switched off instruments. That's Kim on bass and Thor the drummer on clarinet.

Then Shearwater, the evening's headliner, took the stage. It was a grand show in a small venue—my favorite way to see live music. Shearwater's music defies easy categorization, though they usually get the indie-rock label. See and hear for yourself at

Jonathan Meiberg playing guitar at The Beachland Tavern.

The room was full—according to Jonathan this was their most successful Cleveland show ever! Some of the audience knew every single word of every song. After hearing the live show, I can see why Shearwater's fanbase is growing. Adding to the immense talent of the musicians in the band is the fact that they all seem to be genuinely nice. Jonathan took the time not only for our interview, but also for a half-dozen fans who wanted to chat at length with him. After several weeks of touring, that takes some patience, I would guess.

I'm not sure why there's such a connection between music and birds for so many of us. I know I could not live without both music and birds in my life. And I'm glad I don't have to.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Fall Migration: It's Starting!

Monday, July 26, 2010
I walked into Julie's studio yesterday afternoon to ask her something and a flash of zippy-swoopy movement in the birches just outside the windows caught my eye. I knew right away it was a warbler and not one of the 27 goldfinches, dozen titmice, or half-dozen chickadees that were flitting from trees to feeders to bird bath.

But how did I know it was a warbler?

I'm not completely sure. There are clues that the human brain can gather, sort, and decipher in a matter of milliseconds. All I saw was one quick swoop from one birch to another and my brain instantly said "Warbler!" If I had to 'splain it, I'd say it was something about the size, color, and style of movement—all things that I'd seen before, deduced, and confirmed. But I'm only grasping for an explanation here. All I know is that I instantly knew what family that feathered thing belonged to, and I was determined to see it better.

The warbler, in a show of fair play, hopped from the back of the bird tree to our side, which sent us scampering for binoculars and cameras. It was a female yellow-throated warbler! And this surely signalled the start of fall migration—in late July!

For the next 10 minutes we watched her glean insects and tiny caterpillars from the birch leaves. Man, our gray birches ALWAYS deliver the warblers. This might be the single most bird-friendly tree species on our farm, even though they do not do well in our clay soil and hot, dry summers.

Each late summer through mid-fall we get our annual influx of yellow-throated warblers. They nest down along the creek on Goss' Fork and after the breeding season is over, they come a-hill-toppin' up to our ridge top farm, looking for food or perhaps just exploring before the start of migration.

One of our first falls here at Indigo Hill, as we were out on the deck enjoying a fine morning of birding, a male yellow-throated warbler dropped out of the sky and landed on our stone chimney just two feet from us. It then flew to the deck railing a foot from us. Then it landed on the tripod leg two inches from my knee. It cocked its head as if to make certain we noticed his fine fall plumage, newly molted in for migration. Then he swooped over to our newly planted sycamore. This last act was almost too much for me—I grew up calling this warbler by its original name sycamore warbler.
My final view of Lady Sycamore, just before she slipped away. I dig her golden slippers!

After I left Julie's studio, heading back downstairs to do some podcast recording and editing, a young male American redstart and a female cerulean warbler also came through the birches. I missed them, but I certainly didn't miss the start of fall migration!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Bill of the...Mammals?

Monday, July 19, 2010
Pronghorn antelope buck.

Every so often I am reminded that there is more to the natural world than just birds. Being so immersed in the world of birds tends to make one a tad myopic. And I plead guilty to that charge.

It was genuinely refreshing last month when the family and I spent a week in Yellowstone National Park where the birding was OK, but the mammal watching was outta sight!

This buck pronghorn antelope was ogling a nearby group of does, so he took little notice when our vehicle rolled to a stop about 50 feet from him, cameras beeping and whirring.

I hope to have a few Yellowstone posts in the coming days and weeks and many of them will be full of my gushing over the charismatic mega-fauna of Yellowstone. However, I don't think I'll be changing the name of this blog—though Bill of the Bighorns has a certain ring to it...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My Camera Lens is Fixed!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010
The mystery of my streaky images was not elementary my dear hoatzin.

Sometime back in late 2008 my Canon 300mm fixed lens took a bump (or ate bad hummus) and began showing occasional image abnormalities. This problem was especially obvious in shots with a dark-green background. In these shots there would be diagonal streaks from upper left to lower right through the image. Initially I thought these streaks were a by-product of my near-complete ignorance of camera settings—things like ISO and aperture and TV, AV, and A-DEP. But since they did not appear in every shot, I assumed the problem was due to "operator error." I've been accused of that before.

Soon I noticed that my images just were not as sharp as they should be. You know the feeling of getting a very cooperative subject, snapping off a bunch of frames, liking what you see on the camera's playback window, but once you look at it on the computer, you see that the focus is just off enough to render the shot useless? A non-keeper? That's where I was with my camera rig.

I was frustrated. So I did the unthinkable. I read the camera's manual. It was no help.

I did every imaginable Google search. (Oh, and by the way, don't ever do a search for images containing the word "Streaking." You'll never recover). Still no answers to why the images were soft and streaky.

Next I did a series of tests with the camera using other lenses and determined that the problem was with my 300mm lens, not my Canon 30D camera.

I called Canon and it was determined that I needed to send the lens in for a check-up and possible repair. I did this. And for a mere $120, and two weeks of repair work, I got my 300mm lens back as good as nearly new.

The hoatzin photograph above shows the diagonal streaks that plagued me. I can't tell you how many images that anomaly ruined, but it was a healthy number.

But now, all fixed up, my camera and lens are taking images like this:

Male ruby-throated hummingbird image shot with the recently repaired lens.

I am SO happy! And no, I STILL don't know what ISO is.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Caption Contest #14 Winner!

Monday, July 12, 2010
Quoth the raven, "Gimme a s'more".

Whooo-wee! We had some fine entries for Caption Contest #14! Sadly, we can only crown one winner, and that winner is Erik who supplied three clever captions for this competition.

Erik has won this contest before, and at some point we may need to test him for performance enhancement, but for now we're just congratulating him on his wonderful sense of humor. By the way, Erik's own blog is called Boring Birding and is anything but.

For his winning entry, Erik will receive a copy of the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America.

Other giggle-making entries:

Elizabird's Overheard as the raven planned his attack: "I want the bag in the middle!"

Julie Z's caption: They drove up in a Subaru Forester. With my luck, they're gonna be vegetarians.

Thierry Lach said...Hey! Your sandwich is bigger! I got rooked!

lalapapawawa said...Ebony and Ivories... Live together in perfect harmony!

You can revisit all the entries, including Erik's other two, on the comments section of the original post.

Thanks to all who entered, thought about entering, entered anonymously, or merely lurked. Until next time....

Friday, July 9, 2010

Friday, July 9, 2010

If the sky were a blanket
colored like vivid flowers
what a joy it would be
these sweet twilight hours.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Wordless Wednesday

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Monday, July 5, 2010

Caption Contest #14

Monday, July 5, 2010
Here's the image we've selected for the Bill of the Birds Caption Contest #14.

Submit your clever caption via the comments box below before Sunday, July 11, 2010 at midnight. Our vast panel of judges, laugh-mongers, and funny-bone specialists will select a winner on Monday afternoon, July 12, 2010. The creator of the winning caption will receive a copy of The Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America.

If you are new to this caption contest concept, OR if you are an Interwebs newbie, OR if you merely want to see what our panel thinks is funny, click on the Caption Contest category in the Labels line at the end of this post. That will link you to all of our previous posts that featured Caption Contests.

Perhaps this will help you get your caption-writing mojo working: I took this image a few weeks ago in Yellowstone National Park. The bird is a common raven. The women were sharing a sandwich.

Good luck to one and all!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Giant Things of Montana

Thursday, July 1, 2010
Oh mighty Giant Rifleman
giant gun in giant hands
looking for a giant thrill
from giant varmints you could kill

But sadly you must stay right here
guarding the casino by your rear
And what of those gambling innocents
if you have a bit of flatulence?

I see them screaming, clothes alight
staggering out into the night
a giant fart from giant jeans
caused by giant can of beans

That unhappy look upon your face
makes me think you hate this place
you cannot sit, or run, or dance
or change your giant underpants

O Giant Cowboy, what a life
all alone, no giant wife
wired in place, yet standing tall
the world to you must seem so small.