Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Caption Contest #17

Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Taking a temporary break from my series of Papua New Guinea posts, I thought we'd snuggly into another Bill of the Birds caption contest.

Please submit your clever caption for this photo (of my friend Dr. Steve Banner using his BWD bino harness in a Scandinavian hot spring) and if your entry is selected as the winner by our panel of judges, you'll receive an autographed copy of the currently out-of-print (and oh-so collectible) best-selling book "Bird Watching For Dummies."

Get it? Got it? Good!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

My Fellow Travelers to PNG

Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Before we launch into the Papua New Guinea birding trip posts in earnest, I feel it might be helpful to introduce you to the folks on the trip—six Brits, one Canadian, and one American. Above is a shot I took of our group eating lunch in Tabubil. So here, in brief, are my fellow travelers:

The trip's organizer was Tim Appleton, MBE, one of the co-founders of the world's largest birding event The British Birdwatching Fair held annually at the Rutland Water Preserve in England. Tim has more stamps on his passport than the post office has for sale. And he's a jolly good fellow, despite having the initials MBE following his name (bestowed upon him for his good deeds in conservation by the Queen). We were required by the laws of the Commonwealth to refer to Tim as "His Lordship" during the trip.

Author, reformed twitcher, and world-class conversationalist Mark Cocker is perhaps best known for his many popular books on birds and nature, including Crow Country, Birds Britannica, and one of my favorites Birders: Tales of a Tribe. His new project is called Birds and People, which he's currently researching and writing. Mark saw it as his duty to interview nearly everyone we met, usually starting with the question: "Do you know anyone who does not chew betel nut?"

Ray Tipper is a talented bird photographer and a tour leader for Avian Adventures. He lives in Portugal, but lived for many years in Hong Kong. His deep knowledge of Asian bird life—especially shorebirds—makes him a valuable travel companion. Even more endearing is Ray's willingness to laugh at all of my silly jokes.

Matt Merritt is the features editor at Bird Watching magazine in the UK. He is a quiet fellow, and a deep thinker (the smoke in the above photo is actually being generated by Matt's mind). Matt maintains the Polyolbion blog, which is always interesting and readable. He is also a fine poet —you can read some of his work here.

Chris Collins was perhaps the birder on our trip with the most actual experience in the Central Pacific. He has led many extensive pelagic trips for WildWings. Chris came loaded with audio gear and bird song recordings, which netted us quite a few species we might otherwise have missed. He also single-handedly supported local artisans by buying their fine works of art.

Gavin Bieber (secretly Canadian) was the only other North American on the trip, which was great because he and I had no language barrier to overcome. Gavin leads birding tours for WINGS, and though he'd never been to PNG, he'd done so much homework in preparation for this trip that he knew more than any of us about PNG's birdlife.

Barry Trevis leads tours for Ramblers Worldwide Holidays. He's traveled extensively both as a guide and just for the heck of it, and he has the stories to prove it. At one point, when the birding was slow, Barry and I started quoting lines from our favorite movies. His imitations of Bruce Lee were totally hilarious. "Ahh, Mr. Braithwaite! Some tea?"

That's me (Bill of the Birds) with the gang, birding on the mountainside at Nick's Place on New Britain. Photo by Tim Appleton.

And that's the band of birders that participated in the fam trip to Papua New Guinea from September 24 to October 12, 2010.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Birding Papua New Guinea Day 1

Monday, October 25, 2010
Coming in to PNG by air, we could see coral reefs in the blue Pacific.

We flew all night from Singapore to Port Moresby, PNG, with a short stop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (no we did not see any "kuala" bears). Once at the Port Moresby airport, we cleared customs, changed some money, gathered our bags, and hustled over to the domestic terminal for another flight from Port Moresby to Tari in the Southern Highlands Province. We thought our schedule was very tight and did not want to miss the Tari flight. Once through the domestic terminal security checkpoint, we found out that our flight to Tari was postponed for four hours. We were stuck with no chance of going outside to spend the time birding. It was about 9 am.

Waiting out the flight delay in the domestic flights terminal.

So we made the most of our time, talking about our most-wanted birds, getting to know each other, comparing notes on which malaria drugs we were taking. At the tarmac end of the building, there were some large windows through which we were able to spot a few species, including Pacific swallow, Brahminy kite, whistling kite, black kite, Eurasian tree sparrow, and purple swamphen.

The flight was on a small commuter plane and lasted 1.5 hours. As we landed on the gravel airstrip in Tari our group confused our fellow fliers with shouted bird identifications: "Cattle egret on the left!" "Another swamphen!" "I think I have a harrier! Is it a swamp harrier!"

Landing in Tari. Locals lined the fence in the background.

Lining the fence around the airfield were hundreds and hundreds of local people. It was a Saturday and much of the local population was in Tari for the markets.

Market day in Tari.

And clearly the arrival of a plane was something worth watching. There were equal amounts of curious staring going on between our group and the locals.

A Huli man in traditional garb. Most everyone carries a bilam (woven bag), machete, and umbrella.

We met Benson, our guide from Ambua Lodge, and a driver. At the completion of the 45 minute drive to the lodge, I calculated how long I'd been traveling. Here's what I wrote in my journal notebook:

Finally arriving at Ambua Lodge in the rain. It's 4:11 p.m. local time (+14 hours from Ohio) and, if my calculations are correct, I've been traveling for 37 hours—almost a full work week!—to get here! Also am getting a sinus infection from all the airplane air... SO dang tired!

We slogged our way to our cabins (quite nice thatched roof buildings with all the mod cons and a great view of the misty. rain-soaked valley), fought the urge to collapse into sleep and reassembled at Ambua's central building. Huddling under the roof of an open-sided veranda, we did our first non-airport birding of the trip. Despite the rain we spotted New Guinea (or great) wood swallow, yellow-billed lorikeet, glossy swiftlet, mountain swiftlet, Willie wagtail (seriously!), and yellow-browed melidectes (a type of honeyeater).

Birding in the rain our first afternoon at Ambua Lodge.

After a dinner which was good but I can't remember a thing about, we went out owling with Benson our guide. Though the hour was not late (in the tropics dawn and dusk both come very near to 6 o'clock) we were all very tired. Still, no one wanted to wimp out on the first night and this was our best chance at a bird called a mountain owlet nightjar.

My notes remind me that we heard this species, but we could not call it into view. Mostly I remember the exhilarating sensation of falling as I stood in the darkness straining to hear anything birdlike. It was cold and misting. The sensation of falling was quite real—because I was falling asleep on my feet. Fortunately I caught myself before I fell face-first onto the muddy gravel road.

Half an hour later I fell face-first onto my bed and dropped into a deep sleep. Then, seemingly eight seconds later, the alarm went off.

It was 4:15 a.m. Time to go birding!

Friday, October 22, 2010

One Day of Birding in Singapore

Friday, October 22, 2010

I was recently invited to be part of a birding familiarization trip to Papua New Guinea (PNG) sponsored by The PNG Tourism Board. I had turned down the original invitation (with a great deal of disappointment) because I had a few prior commitments during the three weeks of the fam trip. However, when most of these scheduling conflicts magically evaporated, I crossed my fingers and inquired about space. Glory be! I got back on the trip and began immediate preparations for it.

The only catch was that the participants had to get themselves to Singapore's Changi Airport for the start of the trip. Not only was this logistically hard, it was a tad expensive and a major time eater. (Am I whining now? Please tell me if I start to whine). In order to be at Changi for the 9:30 pm flight on September 23 from Singapore to Port Moresby, PNG (on Air Niugini—note cool spelling), I had to leave Ohio on the afternoon of September 21. It was a long haul, but I made it (thanks in no small part to an entire season of "The Office" which I watched on my iPad, laughing so heartily that I got shushed by a flight attendant).

I arrived in Singapore at 3 am on September 23, slept a few hours, showered, and decided to see about doing some birding since I had a whole day to wait. I'd made previous plans to meet two of the other guys on the trip for a few hours of Singapore birding, but the logistics 'debbils' worked against us and we missed connections. I left my hotel in a taxi, bound for the Jurong Bird Park on the other end of town.

I can hear you asking: Why a bird park? Aren't all the birds in cages at a bird park?

Why yes, many birds ARE in cages in a bird park. But good habitat in places like parks and zoos often also attracts wild birds, and this was my hope. Furthermore, there would be captive examples of birds I hoped to see in PNG, so I could view them as a living field guide of sorts.

Aside: I should mention here that I undertook this trip to PNG without access to a field guide to the birds of PNG. The current PNG field guide has been out of print for so long that used copies are selling on Amazon for many hundreds of dollars. Thus, the bird park was going to have to serve as my preparation for the birds I might see.

Stepping out of the cool taxi into the close, humid air of the bird park, I could hear wild bird calls mixing with the cries of bird park captives. I paid my entry fee and walked into the park. Scores of tourists thronged around the entrance and food court, paying to have their photos taken with captive scarlet macaws. Many of the park visitors turned to look at me. I initially thought it was because I was at least a foot taller than anyone else. Now I realize it may have been due to the fact that I was chewing on a piece of chewing gum—which, apparently, is against the law in Singapore.

Blissfully ignorant of the local mastication laws, I walked into a dark building and added the first two species to my Singapore bird list: snowy owl and great gray owl.
Wait, what?

Yes, these were the first two species I actually saw well enough to identify in Singapore. I also felt really sorry for them, being so far from home.

Finding my way outside the "Owls of the World" exhibit, I began to encounter actual wild birds. Tiny flitting sprites danced through the treetops. I had binoculars but no field guide, so I took notes of the field marks hoping for later access to an identification resource. I recognized a bulbul, two mynas, a ladder-backed, brownish woodpecker, a small dark heron, a night-heron of some kind, a fork-tailed dark swallow, some large white storks, a common sandpiper, a dark-brown teal-like duck, a wood rail of some kind... and then I saw my first HOLY MACKEREL (though my wording may have been slightly different) bird of the trip: a huge lemon-yellow bird with a coral bill and a black mask.

I snapped a photo of the bird with my Canon G11 digital camera. I thought it had to be a kookaburra or kingfisher of some kind. Whatever it was it was HUGE and bright. It felt like the birding portion of the trip had finally begun.

I moved on through the park, seeking out captive representatives of some of the bird species I hoped to see in Papua New Guinea.
The Victoria crowned pigeon was one of the endemic PNG species targeted for our trip. Big as a turkey but a million times more beautiful these birds caused me to stop and stare outside their enclosure. The wonders of evolution...

Next I sought out the birds of paradise. If there is one family of birds that is identified with Papua New Guinea it's the birds of paradise. Most of the 40 species (divided into 12 genera) of BOP are found in PNG. Our trip would be focusing on seeing as many BOPs as possible, so I wanted to drop an eyeball on a few of these creatures to get a sense of their size, shape, and color. The only ones showing well were a gang of lesser birds-of-paradise. I watched a male dance across a feeding tray, trying to impress two rather bored-looking females.

Another male joined in. Like many caged animals, these birds looked slightly ragged and their behavior seemed overly repetitive. I quickly moved away, saying a quiet incantation that I'd get to see the real thing in a few days.

Next came a stupendous creature: a cassowary. Huge and weird are the first two words that leap to mind when viewing a cassowary. The bird park had several captive cassowaries roaming around inside a large, open air enclosure. Everywhere you look on a cassowary, there is something amazing to see from the horn on top of the head, to the bluish skin on the neck, the huge eyes, the neck pouch, the hairlike feathers on the body, and the large and powerful legs with clawed feet.

I stood and admired the cassowary, again, hoping I'd see one in the wild soon.

I wandered back to the park's entrance and stopped in a gift shop to purchase a laminated guide to common city and garden birds of Singapore. Using this handy guide, I ID'd many of my mystery birds from my visual memory and my scribbled notes. Here are some of the species I was able to nail down: yellow-vented bulbul, spotted dove, Pacific swallow, Sunda pygmy woodpecker, white-fronted wood rail, black-naped oriole (my holy mackerel bird!), yellow-billed stork (see top of this page), Javan myna, common myna, Asian glossy starling, yellow-rumped flycatcher, and Eurasian tree sparrow. Plus my old familiars: black-crowned night-heron and cattle egret. There were a bunch of small, olive-drab birds that went unidentified.

And then it was time to head back to the airport hotel to prepare for the flight to Port Moresby, PNG. On my way out of the bird park, a sign caused me to do a double take. Can you see what's wrong with this picture?

Back at the Changi Airport I met up with our entire group—some of whom were old friends—and we settled in to wait for the flight, which would be overnight, with a stop in Malaysia. Sadly it was the middle of the night when we stopped there, otherwise I might have added snowy owl and great gray owl to my Malaysia bird list, too!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Journey to the Other Side of the Earth

Wednesday, October 20, 2010
I've been away for a while.

Not just away, but far away, as in the other side of the planet. I was on a birding trip to Papua New Guinea and, my friends, it was the trip of a lifetime.

Over the next few weeks and months, I'll be sharing some of my experiences in PNG with you here at Bill of the Birds. Eventually I hope to create both a magazine article for Bird Watcher's Digest and a podcast episode for "This Birding Life."

For now I'll start things off with one of my favorite images (above) from the trip. It's me wearing all my birding gear, including my leech socks, standing next to a Huli wigman in the southern highlands near Tari. He told me, as we walked across his land, that his name was simply "Warrior." Warrior helped to guide us to the roost tree of a sooty owl—just one of the nearly 300 species we saw during the three week trip.

It's always a magical thing to be some place that's completely different from what I'm accustomed to—different people, landscape, language, customs, food, and, yes, different birds. PNG qualifies with flying colors on all counts.

More to come about Warrior, and all the people, places, and birds of Papua New Guinea.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Meeting LeBron James

Monday, October 18, 2010
On my recent trip to a far away land, I met LeBron James. LeBron, if you don't know, is one of the world's most famous pro basketball players. He used to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but recently "took his talents to South Beach" to play for the Miami Heat.

The photo above is a close up of the two of us posing along a rural road.

He's not as tall in person as he seems on TV.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Mad Vireo

Friday, October 15, 2010
Here are my top ten reasons why this white-eyed vireo looks mad:

10. Warblers get all the love.
9. He woke up on the wrong side of the vine tangle.
8. He's trying to cash in on some of that Mad Bluebird photo money.
7. He got drunk last night and people are confusing him with a red-eyed vireo.
6. Fall migration is a pain in the vent.
5. Hates the sound of a spishing birder.
4. Did not sign a model release for this photo.
3. Has been trying to tell people for years that he's not really saying "Quick get the beer check!"
2. He needs new spectacles.
1. Since he ate that banana slug, he's been constipated for weeks.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Big Sit! Wha Hoppen?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

For the first time in, like, 10 years, I won't be doing The Big Sit from my birding tower at Indigo Hill in southeastern Ohio. This officially bums me out.

I will sorely miss all my Indigo Hill Big Sit buddies this October 10. However, I will be someplace birdy on Planet Earth, and I shall endeavor to conduct a Big Sit if I possibly can.

Details to follow as I am able. Happy Big Sitting to all my fellow sitters around the world! May the birds pass by your circle in great variety, wearing their least-confusing plumage.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Meet The Confusing Fall Warbler

Monday, October 4, 2010
Man, if we could only see the feet, this might be a cinch! But of course they are obscured.

So let's move on to the other field marks. Looking at the small bill and overall shape we know this is a warbler, right? Good. What else do we notice?

Well, if you remember your Streaky Fall Warblers chapter from Identify Yourself: The 50 Most Common Bird Identification Challenges (please see page 296) you'll remember that we divide the confusing fall warblers into Streaky Fall Warblers and Plain Fall Warblers. This little dude is definitely streaky.

The Streaky Fall Warblers include magnolia, pine, Cape May, blackpoll, bay-breasted, and prairie.

The "maggie" has a necklace, a dark head, and a yellow rump, which this bird lacks.

The pine is a super-chunk bird with a stout bill. Again, not our bird.

The Cape May is dark above, pale below, with dark face, and a limeade rump. Nope.

The prairie is very yellow below, with noticeable white tail panels, which it shows off by flicking its tail. It also has a very obvious yellow face, with a yellow crescent below the eye. Our bird's face is olive.

OK, look at the eye on our bird. See how it has a dark line through it? That's the line that makes the blackpoll look "mean" while the eyeline-free, plain face of the bay-breasted looks "sweet."

A streaky back. OK that narrows things even more. Wing bars? Good to note, but that doesn't get us much closer to an answer.

Non-uniform underparts: pale throat, yellow breast, streaky belly and flanks. Now that's notable. If this were a bay-breasted warbler, the underparts would be uniform. And the flanks might show a hint of the "bay" or chestnut color. But this bird has plain flanks.

So this bird, a Streaky Fall Warbler, is a blackpoll warbler. Oh, and the clue about the feet I mentioned at the outset? Blackpoll warblers show yellow feet (and often yellowish legs). But that's a field mark that can be difficult to see on a tiny, flitting migrant. So start with streaky versus unstreaky, and go from there.

Get it? Got it? Good!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Postcard from the Edge of Winter

Friday, October 1, 2010

Can I just say that we miss you Boys of Summer? It's just not the same around here without you, as the days get shorter and the air gets cooler.

Have a nice winter, but don't forget to come back home, OK?