Monday, August 30, 2010

Failure to Obey the Signs

Monday, August 30, 2010
Recently, while strolling along a wooded path (on the grounds of a classic Ohio roadside attraction) with my family, we came upon this sign (above): "Keep Off the Dinosaurs."

Our kids are reasonably well-behaved creatures, so we did not think anything of it. Well, I guess I thought the sign had a pinch of the kill-joy spirit in it, but that's life these days in the United States of Litigation.

We walked onward.

Moments later the unthinkable happened. Liam was attacked by a raging triceratops.

Perhaps there should have been a sign for the dinosaurs saying "Don't Eat the Tourists."

Thank heavens I had my iPhone with me or I wouldn't have gotten this photo of the attack. We'll need it for the lawsuit.

[ok, just kidding. Liam is fine. So is the triceratops, according to its lawyer and agent.]

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The ABA Needs to Soak Up the Fun

Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Pages and pages have been written lately about the future of the American Birding Association—some of it fairly pessimistic, some of it quite optimistic. Recent posts have tended toward the latter, which is reason for hope.

I don't have a lot to add to the chorus of voices suggesting how to save the organization, but I do want to make one suggestion to the ABA as a whole, and especially to the incoming president/CEO: Please make it fun.

I've been an ABA member since the mid-1980s. Back then I was trying my level best to fit in with the more experienced birders I encountered. I knew then (and still know) what it's like as a bird watcher to feel not good enough to "hang" with the big dogs. That's a problem that's plagued the ABA almost since its inception: new bird enthusiasts not feeling comfortable joining because they felt inadequate in skill level and experience.

I've heard other things named as THE reason for the ABA's decline.

"It's just a club for listers!"
"Is it a conservation group or a birding group or both?"
"All that super-difficult bird ID stuff in Birding magazine is way over my head."
"The conferences are too expensive."
"It just doesn't matter like it once did."
"It's too serious!"

That last reason may be closer to the mark than any of the other ones.

In the fall of 2008, I participated in a facilitated visioning session for the ABA. The half-dozen of us in the session worked for an entire day discussing what the ABA had done in the past, what it was doing currently, and what it might do in the future to maintain and enhance its standing in the North American birding community. I thought (as did the facilitator, and most of my fellow volunteer participants) that we came up with some really great ideas and recommendations. Sadly nothing ever came of our work—at least not yet.

If all of our recommendations could be summarized in one central theme, it would be to make being a member of the American Birding Association an engagingly fun experience.

An enormous factor in being a bird watcher for most of us is the social connection we enjoy with others who share our interest. When I look at my actual, real-world friends, most of them are birders. When I look at my Facebook "friends," the same is true.

However, being connected hasn't always been so easy.

As a young birder in the 1970s, I had no clue that there were others my age who shared my interest in birds. It wasn't until I joined a local bird club that I connected with fellow bird watchers, albeit much older than I.

In 1978, my family started Bird Watcher's Digest. We reached out through the mail to bird clubs and newspaper columnists writing about birds and nature in order to find content and subscribers. The ABA was newly formed, too, but not yet a well-known entity.

In the fall of 1979, when I went to band hawks as a volunteer in Cape May, New Jersey, I found out that there were people who did bird stuff for a living! Five or so years later, I discovered the American Birding Association and I attended my first ABA convention in 1990 in Fort Collins, CO.

Today it's far easier to find and connect with others who share our special interest. The ABA, if it is to survive and grow, needs to facilitate these connections. And it needs to make sure that EVERYONE is invited, and that EVERYONE is having fun. Like the host of a really awesome party, where everyone is having such a blast that they never want to leave.

Think this is vacuous? Perhaps it is. But it's worked for me here at Bird Watcher's Digest, in the content we create, and in the events that we coordinate.

Certainly the ABA needs to promote responsible birding. It needs to publish important data. It needs to support the development of the birders of tomorrow. It needs to figure out how to run itself like a business with good financial decisions and an elimination of the conflicts among membership, staff, and board. It needs to figure out how accomplish all these things AND how to be relevant in a world where everyone can be connected all of the time.

Make it fun, and all of these challenges will be easier to overcome. People have so many choices for spending their time, attention, and money. We humans are social creatures. We tend to gravitate to things that make us feel good. As bird watchers we might even need a bit more "feel-good" stuff since we've only recently emerged from the socially stigmatized days of Miss Jane Hathaway. A fun ABA will attract more members, which will help the organization become more relevant, which will attract more members...

Here's hoping that the months and years ahead will see a lot of F-U-N put into everything the ABA does. I, for one, believe that the hobby of birding needs the happy sense of belonging that a healthy and engaged ABA can offer. And so I'm going to do what I can to help things move in that direction.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Owl is Lost

Wednesday, August 18, 2010
"I have a baby hawk or maybe an owl and it's on the ground right by the swimming pool! There are kids and dogs all over the place. What should I do?"

That was the call I got early on the evening of August 4 from the manager of a local swimming pool. After a few questions from me about the bird's size, shape, color, and eyes, we determined that this was probably a fledgling eastern screech-owl.

I told the manager to pick up the fledgling gently and place it up in a tree, out of grabbing reach of youngsters and leaping reach of dogs. And if this was not possible, or if he could not pick up the owl to call me back and I'd drive into town to help him. I did not hear back that night, so I assumed all was well.

The phone rang again the following morning. It was another pool employee this time, calling to report that the baby owl was back on the ground. This was no good, so I made plans to stop by to help on my way in to work.

This time of year here in the Midwest, young owls are "branching" out from the nest. During this phase of their lives, the young owls are testing their wings and learning some of the life skills that will sustain them in the future. They are still being fed by the parents at night, however, and I did not want to kidnap an otherwise healthy fledgling just because it seemed like a good idea.

Pulling into the pool facility parking lot, I, and my friends Lisa and Jeff who were visiting from Boston, found two women and a very concerned young boy. The owlet was on the grass beneath a white pine tree.The pine, where the manager had placed the owl the night before, was only slightly larger than the one Charlie Brown puts up for Christmas each year—not really a safe place. Clearly the owl had tried to fly and had ended up grounded again.

Sure enough, it was a young red-morph eastern screech-owl. I crawled under the pine tree and looked it over carefully. It seemed tired but appeared to be physically unharmed. No drooping wings or balance problems, and no blood or mussed feathers that might indicate a car collision or an encounter with a predator.

It would not take the pieces of thawed beef I offered on some long tweezers, so I called the Science Chimp for a phone referral. She confirmed my plan was the wise move—to find the owl's nest cavity if possible and return it there, or, at least to get it up into a larger tree where it would be safe until dark.

I glanced around me for likely trees. There were many smallish deciduous trees in the park surrounding the pool, but none looked likely as the owl's pint of origin. Across the road by the river, large ashes, mulberries, sycamores, oaks, and water maples grew and most of them had cavities where an owl family could live. I felt certain that this little guy or gal had glided across the road from these trees, landed on the ground, and was unable to fly back again. I would return the owl across the road.
The poison-ivy jungle.

The trouble was the entire tree-clad river bank was covered in a vine-y tangle of poison ivy. I walked closer. There was a low-hanging water maple branch with a partial cavity at its base. If I could get the owl there, I'd feel good about its chances of surviving until night when the owlet would emit some begging calls and its parents would likely resume their flights of food.

Poison ivy and I do not get along so swimmingly. I glanced down at my Teva sandals, sockless feet and bare legs (not a great day to wear shorts). There was no way to reach the branch without tip-toeing through the ivy. The pool was not yet open so we had no option to wrap me up mummy-style in towels. I was going to have to dive into the ivy, deliver the owl to its branch, and high-step back out again. Then I was going to have to wash my legs in bleach lest I go into fits of scratching that would make Fleegle from The Banana Splits look pest free.

Just as I was about to scoop up the owl for my mission of mercy, my birding and music pal Steve McCarthy showed up, fully clad in his always-fashionable business-casual attire—including long pants, socks, and normal human shoes. He'd been up the river at the dam looking at the season's first snowy egret.
Steve McCarthy, bird rescuer and local raconteur

Apprised of the situation, Steve did not hesitate. He took the young, lost nocturnal raptor and delivered it safely to the water maple branch.

The owlet in its new, safer roost spot.

He even snapped a few of these images with my cellphone's camera. What a guy!
The owl was much better concealed in the new spot. It's just right of center on the main branch.

I gave careful instructions to the pool gals to watch for the owl for the next few days. I told them its parents would be feeding it and that it should soon be fully flighted and thus better able to avoid ending up back on the ground. They promised to call if they found it again. I never got a call so I'm assuming that all's well that ends well.

Or should it be owls well that ends well....ah, whooo knows.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Caption Contest #15 Winner!

Monday, August 16, 2010
And the winner is...
with her cavalcade of captions:

Certhia americana [editor's note: this is the Latin name for brown creeper]

Wow. I could be birding, but instead I’m looking at some dude’s butt.

Monitoring the nest wasn’t the same after the restraining order…

Using a combination of drab plumage, shiny objects and ground display, Bill attempts to lure female birders.

After successfully avoiding warbler neck, another unsuspecting birder falls victim to grouse gut.

AMERICAN PSYCHIATRIC ASSOCIATION'S DIAGNOSTIC AND STATISTICAL MANUAL Figure 2.2: An inverse relationship exists between the rarity of a bird and the decorum of the watcher.

And these were big hits with the judging crew:
Erik (always in the running it seems) said...:
After reviewing his photos, Bill realized wicking fabrics were not the best choice for the Bird Boxers.

cyberthrush said...
In their first-ever trial-run the brand new Depends-For-Birders failed to live up to their advanced 'billing.'

Julie Zickefoose said....
As the Palawan Peacock-pheasant rewarded a six-hour stakeout by finally striding into view, Bill overwhelmed his astronaut's diaper.

spencer said...

"Birder falls on face just short of finish line" ;)

Idaho Birder said...

Yes, as a matter of fact, I did sit on my McGriddle breakfast sandwiches.

Janet Creamer

Pants on the ground, pants on the ground, lookin' like a fool with your pants on the ground...

Congrats to Jessica! She wins a signed and numbered BWD cover print of her choice. [Jessica, if you're out there, send me a message with your print choice and contact info to] You can view a gallery of our limited edition prints here.

Thanks to all of you for your participation. This contest's captions seemed especially clever!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Caption Contest #15

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Send in your clever caption for the photograph above by Sunday, August 15 (using the comments window below). The winning caption, chosen by our ever-expanding panel of former American Idol judges, will receive a signed and numbered cover print of their choice from Bird Watcher's Digest.

Good luck!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Life Mammal at Long Range

Friday, August 6, 2010
After a delightful week in North Dakota at The Potholes and Prairie Birding Festival (yes, you should go), the family and I headed west into the Rocky Mountains. Our ultimate destination was to be Yellowstone National Park, a place none of us had ever visited. I will be sharing some of the highlights of that trip, but they will not always be in chronological order. This is due to a few reasons:

1. My brain does not always work chronologically.
3. Some stories demand to be told NOW.
2. My brain does not always work chronologically.

We were told by friends that we should enter the park through Beartooth Pass, which sounded ominous enough in name only. When this bit of travel advice was followed by the phrase "if the road is plowed and open this early in June," it added an additional schpritz of foreboding to the mix.

It took a long time to drive from Medora, North Dakota to Beartooth Pass in Montana. Along the way we stopped at a national historic site: Pompey's Pillar. I'll save that post for another day. Today I want to talk about starting out in the flatlands of North Dakota and driving along a highway through the snow-capped mountains.

This was not a casual lah-tee-dah drive along a mountain road. This was The Beartooth Highway, one of the most challenging high-elevation drives in North America. The Beartooth Highway cuts across and around parts of the Absaroka and Beartooth mountains which have many, many peaks topping 12,000 feet (which is an elevation that is palpable in the head and lungs for us relative flatlanders).

We were headed for Yellowstone National Park and our primary targeted species were not birds, but mammals. I'd never seen a live, wild bear of any species and YNP promised a chance to see two: grizzly and black bear. But before we could get to the park's entrance, we had to traverse Beartooth Pass.

Ears popping and lungs gasping both at the scenery and at the thin mountain air, we climbed ever upward on the snaky mountain two-lane. Soon we were hitting patches of roadside snow—sometimes the snow was piled so high it formed eight-foot-high walls on either side of the road. American pipits and mountain bluebirds drank from melt pools. The croaks of ravens could be heard when our vehicle slowed to navigate a turn. Yellow-bellied marmots (lifers for the kids) stared at us with eyes both wary and weary. I spied a distant Clark's nutcracker flying away over a canyon—everyone else missed it. So we pulled into a roadside rest and scenic overlook to empty our bladders and fill our eyes with purple mountains majesty.

Julie and Liam scan for a small flock of mountain bluebirds.

While Julie and the kids sought relief, I got my spotting scope out and began scanning a distant hillside where a sole patch of white seemed out of place. There was no snow anywhere else on the west-facing mountainside, which struck me as odd. What WAS that thing? Did I just see it move?

One scope glance mostly confirmed my hunch—that this was a mountain goat grazing on the tundra-like meadow. Yes, it was moving—and casting a shadow.
A digiscoped image of the mysterious white spot.

Then a second glance revealed one large white dot and two smaller ones—mountain goat kids!!!
One big white blob and two small ones!

I quickly shouted for Julie and our own kids to come and see. "Wow! Awesome! Ohhh they're SO CUTE!" were the reactions I got. Within seconds we had a half-circle of strangers around us asking for a look in the scope. This was a scene that was to be repeated many times in Yellowstone during the ensuing days. I'd see something, or Julie would, or Phoebe would, or Liam would—we'd train the Leica spotting scope on the creature and, because we could not help remarking, gasping, or high-five-ing, our fellow travelers would notice and come to see what all the commotion was about. Most folks were nice and asked politely for a look. Others just walked up, shouldered their way in, and grabbed a look. Presumably these people thought that we were Park Service employees sent out into the field to spot and identify wildlife for the touristy public. It was fine with us.
A cropped view of what is presumably an adult female and her two kids.

The mountain goats were a life mammal for 75 percent of our family unit (I'd seen them poorly in Alaska in the late 1990s). Though they were at a great distance, we still got a nice look thanks to our trusty scope. And if we hadn't had all that water to drink along the way, who knows, we might not have pulled over near the top of Beartooth Pass.

Posing with Liam and Phoebe for an áprés-goat shot.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mule Deer Rear

Monday, August 2, 2010

While scanning through some of my photos from a June trip out West, I spotted this image of a mule deer's backside. While its chances of ever appearing on the cover of National Geographic are nil, there was something that struck me about this shot.

Like someone spotting the image of a saint in a piece of toasted sourdough bread, I thought I recognized something familiar...

Perhaps you'll be a better judge. Does the face you see in this mule deer's posterior end remind you more....

... of a long-nosed monkey?

Or of Squidward, a character from the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants?

Please cast your vote (or make your own alternative suggestions) via the comments window below.