Friday, December 23, 2011

Thinking About My Bird of the Year 2011

Friday, December 23, 2011
It's been an incredible year of bird watching. As I think back on some of the sweet birds I've seen—some of them lifers, some just old favorites—I find it nearly impossible to pick just one as my BOY—my Bird of the Year. Here are some of the nominees: Above is the lesser prairie chicken I got to see, with dozens of his fellow lekkers, outside of Woodward, Oklahoma, during the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival. What a soul-stirring morning spent in a small blind, waiting for enough of the dawn to coalesce so I could see these incredible birds perform their ancient courtship ritual.

An even rarer life bird came to me (really I went questing after it) in central Texas in late June. The male golden-cheeked warbler that I found at Friedrich Wilderness Park north of San Antonio was my next-to-last U.S.-breeding warbler species (only the hard-to-see Colima warbler remains unchecked on my life list).

Actually the first golden-cheeked individual I saw was a begging fledgling, which looked a whole lot like an adult bird only rattier and fluffier of plumage. When the adult male came in, followed by the adult female, and the three of them dropped down to drink and bathe in a small pool 20 feet away, my identification was confirmed. And I began to suppress a scream of joy. It was a extra poignant to see a fledgling of this federally endangered species—and to think of how few fledgling golden-cheeked warblers there were in the world at that moment.

I'm often asked, as most birders are, to share which species is my favorite bird. Since my pre-teen years, my answer has been red-headed woodpecker. I'm not sure why, but this bird just gets me fired up. Perhaps because this is a bird of contradictions. They are increasingly rare here in southeastern Ohio, but they were common in the southeastern Iowa of my childhood. They are ID-able from a great distance in flight flashing the semaphore of white and black wings, yet they often go unnoticed as they perch quietly. Some red-headeds migrate, others don't. Where they are common they are reliable to see, but they can also show up just about anywhere, especially in fall migration. They are often confused with the much more common red-bellied woodpecker and species that has, at best, a red Mohawk stripe of red. And the red on the red-headed's head (say THAT 10 times fast)—well it's perhaps the most compelling red on any bird. Yep, it's my fave. This year we heard about a nesting colony of RHWOs about an hour away from home in West Virginia, so we took several trips there to commune with them.

While traversing the New River Gorge Bridge on the catwalk below the road surface, I got to enjoy my closest-ever look at an adult peregrine falcon. The above photo was taken with my Canon G12 point-and-shoot camera. This bird was CLOSE! The bird of prey highlight of the year for me.

The local birding grapevine whispered in my ear about a possible sandhill crane in our county. I was initially doubtful because we have an exploding population of great blue herons in the region. Sure enough, at dusk the same day I first heard about the crane, we found it. Foraging in a field of newly sprouted sweet corn. It stayed around long enough for me to get several birding friends out to see it. My first-ever Ohio sandhill crane and, if I kept a Washington County, Ohio bird list this would be a nice addition to it!

These are just four of the nominees for my BOY. I'll do my best to share the rest during the holidays, before the list stats anew at 12:01 am on 1/1/12.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Return to Hog Island!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The famous Hog Island Audubon Camp in Maine is back in full swing this summer with a tasty menu of sessions for nature enthusiasts of all ages and interests. Julie Zickefoose and I will be instructors during the "Joy of Birding" week June 24 to 29. You can find out some details here.

If you look at an atlas of the state of Maine, you'll note that there are numerous islands named Hog. One can only presume that these islands were so-named because that's where early residents of Maine kept their swine—presumably safe from predators and, being on an island, naturally prevented from roaming. But there's only one Hog Island with an impressive history of nature study and education—that's the one in Muscongus Bay, Maine—and that's the one we're heading back to in June. Roger Tory Peterson and Allan D. Cruickshank are among the island's legendary instructors, dating back to the camp's founding in 1936.

Among this coming season's well-known instructors are Scott Weidensaul, Sara Morris, Pete Dunne, Lang Elliott, Donald Kroodsma, Sue Schubel, and Steve Kress who is the camp's director and is best known for Project Puffin, which helped to restore breeding populations of the Atlantic puffin (and other endangered seabird species) to islands off the New England coast.

I've written about Hog Island numerous times here at Bill of the Birds, including this post about visiting nearby Harbor Island, and this one about the last time we were instructors there.

The Hog Island experience is a unique one. The island is magically beautiful and just large enough that you can take a long hike around its perimeter and feel you are leaving the modern world behind. The sessions are informative and fun and the birding is really great, especially if you don't often get to see species that are common to the northern woods or to the northeastern Atlantic coast.

Every day is a new adventure. The food is great. The accommodations are rustic but comfy. And the air is clean and cool. We love going to Hog Island even more because our kids, Phoebe and Liam, get to come along. They play all day along the rocky shores and in the dark, mystical woods surrounding the camp, building cairns and imagining there are woodland sprites playing tricks there and pirates coming ashore to bury their loot. Like I said, Hog Island is magic.

Write it down, friends: Joy of Birding, June 24 to 29, 2012! Hope to see you there!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Kingdom of Kingfishers!

Friday, December 2, 2011
Smyrna kingfisher in the pre-dawn fog at Hula-Agamon Park.

I was in Israel on a birding tour over the Thanksgiving holiday this year, attending the Hula Valley Bird Festival. The trip was amazing and amazingly birdy almost everywhere we went. For this post I'm going to highlight the incredible density of kingfishers we encountered.

But first some background!

I'd been to Israel once before, in the late 1980s. I'd be shocked if any readers of this blog recall my article about that trip, written for Bird Watcher's Digest and published in the September/October 1985 issue of BWD. That was my first-ever BWD article written about my first-ever official overseas birding trip! Both times I had to do some careful thinking and planning both because Israel is a long way away and because it's in a part of the world that's often in the news, usually due to political unrest between neighbors. Fortunately on both trips, each lasting more than a week, any concerns I had were unwarranted—the people were friendly, the neighbors were neighborly, the weather was wonderful, the landscape was beautiful and the birds were beyond expectation.

Consider yourself warned that I'm working on another Israel article, along with a podcast, and a gallery of images for the not-so-distant future for BWD. Now back to the kingfishers.

Located as it is in the middle of the arid, mostly desert Middle East, Israel would be no more bird-rich than its neighbors except for one major factor: water. Water flows through this country from north to south and it is channeled and used in a variety of ways, especially for agriculture. Wherever this water occurs, so do birds, especially water-loving birds like the kingfishers. We encountered three kingfisher species during our time in the Hula Valley in northern Israel and on short trips out from the valley in all directions: the common kingfisher, the pied kingfisher, and the white-throated or Smyrna kingfisher.

Pied kingfishers at a fish farm.

Israel has a lot of fish farms. These fish farms have a lot of fish, which means they also have a lot of fish-eating birds. Nearly every day during our birding trip we stopped at some set of man-made ponds, reservoirs, fish farms, or water-treatment facility. We'd scan the water and shoreline for birds, often looking past the number of kingfishers present. In the image above, there are eight pied kingfishers on a single perch. We sometimes would see twice that many or more perched on sticks and posts along one side of a pond. It was nuts! Only a few individuals were so intent on fishing that they allowed close approach. This is likely a result of the bird-scaring efforts that the fish farmers have to do in order to control the loss of their "crop" to the crops of birds.

The small common kingfisher, which is widespread in Europe, seemed to be the most shy. We'd normally catch brief glimpses of one as it zipped low over the water from one hidden perch to another. Or we'd spy their glimmering iridescent plumage at a distance as we were scanning with our optics.
White-throated kingfisher, aka Smyrna kingfisher, aka white-breasted kingfisher.

The largest of the three kingfisher species we encountered is the white-throated kingfisher, also often referred to as the Smyrna kingfisher. These stunning and bold birds were noisy enough to make their presence known even when they were out of our direct sight.

The pied kingfisher is a study in blacks and whites as its name implies. Slightly smaller than the white-throated kingfisher, the pied was our most frequently seen kingfisher species. Both of the larger kingfishers could regularly be seen away from water, hunting lizards and geckos from a watching perch.

Water brings life to the desert and attracts living things from all directions. It is the kingdom of kings and the kingdom of kingfishers, too!

Here are a few of my better kingfisher images from last week's trip. Enjoy!

A pied kingfisher launching from a perch over water in the Hula Reserve Park.

Hovering pied kingfisher at Ma'agan Michael along the Mediterranean.

No one knows why this species is named white-throated kingfisher.

Common kingfisher held by a staff member at the Hula-Agamon ringing (banding) station.

Pied kingfisher at Ma'agan Michael.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hula Haiku

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Water source of life
brings us together looking
sky peppered with birds

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Walking the Catwalk!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Among the tiny handful of birding events that I do every year is The New River Birding & Nature Festival in Fayette County, West Virginia. There are plenty-plenty reasons why I love this annual spring birding bacchanalia: it's run by good buddies of mine, the birding is truly incredible, Swainson's and cerulean warblers, the landscape is breathtaking, it's a small and intimate gathering of the tribe, they let me play music, there are hottubs in the cabins, and it's only a three-hour drive from the Bill of the Birds man cave. Now, there's another reason. The catwalk!

In the photo above you see a view of The New River Gorge Bridge which carries WV Route 19 across the vast, rocky, gaping maw of the New River Gorge. Do you see the horizontal line of brown steel girders running below the roadway? That's where the bridge's catwalk is located. Come along little kitty-cats and take a stroll with me. If you are acrophobic, you might want to stop reading now. I suggest you google the phrase "Rick-rolling" as an alternative way to soothe yourself.

Here is the understructure of the gorge bridge, stretching off into infinity, toward the south and the Fayetteville end of the bridge. We're climbing out onto the catwalk on the north end.

The company that owns the rights to take people on the catwalk (they market it as "BridgeWalk") has figured things out quite nicely. You are fit with a rather all-encompassing harness—the same kind that mountain climbers or bridge maintenance workers use. You are instructed to bring only items that can be lashed onto your body (see my binocs in the photo above). If you drop your precious iPhone over the edge, it's gone, dude.

The harnesses are attached to a lead which is latched via caribiner to a turnbuckle device that rolls along the safety cable. But that cable is attached to the bridge structure in about 50 places along its length. This is where the ingenious turnbuckle comes in: it ratchets through the attachment brackets, like a mini paddlewheel, while keeping you safely attached at all times. A few gentle tugs gets your line and harness past each attachment point. It's a very clever solution and much safer and more convenient than having to unhook and re-hook each bridge-walker's harness.

We walked the catwalk with six other people, plus a guide. Geoff Heeter, one of the New River Birding & Nature Festival founders and the fellow who invited me on this little adventure, wisely suggested we bring up the rear of the group. This was a very good call as we were able, after the first few sections, to lag behind a bit to take photos and do a bit of birding.

Here's our group, lined up for a photo, taken by our BridgeWalk guide Jim Smith.

And here's Geoff all harnessed up and grooving on the view. And speaking of the view: it is spectacular. I've been to the New River many times in the past 20 years, but being out over the gorge like this was a new and thrilling experience.

As you move out over the gorge, there is only the metal grate of the catwalk below your feet and two steel bands plus a top rail guarding you on the the sides. I'm not afraid of heights, but my knees did wobble a bit for the first 10 minutes or so. Once you get used to it, the thrill takes over for the chill and the experience becomes utterly enjoyable.

That's the New River way down yonder! But there are other fabbo things to see, too!

We saw at least four peregrine falcons on the bridge. These birds are from a population that was hacked on a local cliff face as part of a reintroduction program. We noted bands on the legs of two of them. And the birds seemed utterly unimpressed with the humans clanging along the catwalk—probably because there is a constant roar of traffic on the bridge just feet above, and because there is a steady stream of bridge maintenance workers, and now bridge tourists, coming along the catwalk each day.
The structure of the bridge has numerous holes, ledges, and perches perfect for peregrines. They have nested on the bridge for the past couple of years. Perhaps the birds we were seeing were adults with this year's young?

The BridgeWalk experience is going to be offered at the 10th annual New River Birding & Nature Festival next April 30 through May 5. The festival fills up really fast, so if you've been thinking about attending, don't wait! This final photo shows how close we got on our BridgeWalk to one of the peregrines—my closest look ever at a perched p-bird!

Hope to see you next spring in West Virginia, on the catwalk or elsewhere!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Episode #34 of This Birding Life

Monday, November 21, 2011

Greetings bird people! Episode #34 of my podcast "This Birding Life" is now available (free!) for your listening pleasure over at Podcast Central and in the Podcasts section of the iTunes Store (where it's also free). This episode is an audio recording of Greg Miller's heart-warming presentation at the 2011 Midwest Birding Symposium held last September at Lakeside, Ohio.

In case you don't know who Greg is, he was one of three birders who did a North American big year in 1998 who were featured in Mark Obmascik's best-selling book, The Big Year. The book was the inspiration for the movie "The Big Year" made by director David Frankel and featuring an all-star cast including Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Steve Martin. Programming note: Episode #33 of "This Birding Life" featured an interview with Director David Frankel.

Greg is one of the nicest, most genuine people I've ever met. In his own words, he's "Mr. Un-Hollywood." In his presentation at the MBS he talked about growing up with a bird-watching father, and the highlights and lowlights of his life leading up to his decision to make 1998 his own big year.

I hope you enjoy this new episode of "This Birding Life." Please feel free to share your comments about it here on Bill of the Birds.
Until next time, I'm wishing you clear skies and ossum birding! I'll see you out there with the birds!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Waiting for This Sign of Spring

Thursday, November 17, 2011
OK the bleariness of the Ohio winter has settled in upon us and signs of spring, well, there are none! Sigh.

There's one specific sign that I look for each spring—one that lets me know that the ambient daytime temperatures are warm enough for there to be airborne insects. The air above our southeastern Ohio woods is peppered with gnats...

It's the return of the blue-gray gnatcatchers! They return in spring sometime in early April, usually around the 5th. Once they're back, they are with us until early October, giving away their presence with their high-pitched wheezing calls.

What's facing us now here in Ohio is about six months of gray skies and icky weather. Funny that a bird as gray as our winter skies can be such a harbinger of the joys and colors and music of spring.

I. Can't. Wait!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Happy Birthday to Liam!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011
My best pal in the whole wide world is William Henry Thompson IV and today he turns 12. I've known him his whole life, and he's known me, his dad, his whole life. We even formed a two-guy club called The Hotdog Brothers.

We do manly things like cook over campfires, and play pool, and throw the football, and spit, and pee outside. We are The Hotdog Brothers, YES WE ARE!

Nobody can do goofier or funnier things than Liam—like making cow's udders on your shadow on a winter's afternoon.

Liam, as he's known to most, has lots of other names, too: Popo, Shoomie, Brostie, Jonesie Boy, Stupendous Man, and many others. He is an artist and has an artist's heart and sensitivity.

Liam's best friend in the world is his big sister Phoebe. He's never know a world without Phoebe, which is lucky for him.He really adores Phoebe, and she him. She's taught him about the world, helped him with his homework, encouraged him to do new things, and even defended him at times from being picked on.

In return, Liam makes Phoebe laugh—a lot! Sometimes he acts like Uncle Feely, which can be annoying. But Phoebe puts up with it because she knows Liam loves her, and she can use this to get him to do things for her.

Any camera lying around in our house eventually gets filled with monkey-cam photos like this.

Liam is also an animal lover. Chet Baker, Boston Terrier, is like the brother that Liam never had. They play like siblings, with Chet play growling and Liam squealing out giggles of pure joy at the things Baker does.
Liam is the main fan in our house of our pair of Chinese dwarf hamsters. They like to sleep in Liam's hand while he reads or watches TV.

Liam cuts his own swath through the world of fashion and style. And because he's so sweet, he gets away with ensembles that a lesser being might not. For example: giant foam finger, fedora, camo shorts, green Crocks with white socks. Perfectly Liam!

Chicks dig Liam—especially older chicks, like Phoebe's high school friends, who loved having Liam along as part of Phoebe's 15th birthday last summer.

Even though he sometimes trudges to the school bus, Liam likes school. And school likes him, too.

For Halloween this year, Liam and Phoebe were pumpkinheaded monsters. Their costumes were amazing. It was Liam's concept made into real costumes by his mom, Julie.

There was quite a haul of candy. Above, Liam and his cousins Gus and Jake do a bit of candy trading after trick-or-treating.

Ahhh Liam! That's my boy! He's a dreamer, yes, but I'm so proud to be his daddy. And I'm so thankful that my own dad, William H. Thompson Jr, got to know my son, his namesake.

Happy birthday, sweet boy! I hope you someday get to feel how wonderful it is to have a child and to celebrate their birthday in a special way. Every year with you, Liam, is sweeter than the last.