Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bankable Lifers?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Indian hill myna

On a recent quick trip to South Florida, I was shown two new, but currently uncountable, life birds. The Indian hill myna, and the chestnut-fronted macaw are established exotics here in SoFla. We saw them nesting and making babies, so we know they are establishing their North American populations, however neither species is currently on the North American Bird List as an accepted, countable species.

Chestnut-fronted macaw.

So I am tucking these sightings away for the day when some enterprising ornithology student decides to do a study on these species for his/her PhD thesis. We're calling these species "Bankable Lifers" until they are countable.

Chestnut-fronted macaw. This one is for Charles.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Peregrine Nation

Thursday, March 24, 2011
Once upon a time, when a bird watcher flipped through the raptor pages of his or her field guide, the image of the peregrine falcon probably engendered wistful and wishful feelings. Despite the fact that the peregrine is one of the most widely distributed raptors worldwide, in North America it has been an endangered species for as long as most of can remember. This was due to the lingering effects of DDT and other chemical toxins in the food chain, which inhibited the falcon's reproductive success.

A number of recovery efforts for this species—mainly hacking peregrine chicks into protected human-made nest sites–has succeeded beyond expectation. With the happy result that the American peregrine falcon was taken off the Endangered Species List in 1999.

Today we find peregrine falcons nesting in places where they never existed. Indeed this has been the subject of great debate among birders, wildlife managers, and both government and NGO biologists. Is it OK to put a super predator into a habitat where it never naturally occurred? For example: a peregrine nesting tower built in a vast, flat, coastal marsh which has chicks fledge successfully from it is likely to be where at least one of those chicks returns to nest. And when it does it begins to prey upon the local colony of least terns or piping plovers—two other federally endangered species. Depending on the location and landscape, historically such a habitat would only have passing visits from migrant peregrines.

And what if the local great horned owl comes by the peregrine tower and starts making owl pellets out of the peregrine nestlings? Big dilemma.

Setting aside the bio-ethical dilemma for un momentito, I have to say that I LOVE seeing peregrine falcons on a more regular basis. We even have them nesting on a bridge over the Ohio River between Belpre, Ohio and Parkersburg, WV. And in this area, my guess is that the falcons are living primarily on a diet of rock pigeon—which we have in abundance.

Last Friday as we were leaving a rather somber event in Parkersburg, I spotted a big female peregrine flying between buildings, heading away from the river. She landed on a six-story bank building and began to call. Within minutes her mate swooped in carrying food, landed briefly, then both birds took to the sky. What a thrill!

One of the birds landed on the Wood County courthouse and began drinking (we hypothesized) from a rain puddle on the roof. My guess is that this is the pair of adults that nested under the bridge last year, raising three birds to fledging.

Atop the Wood County, WV courthouse.

On my recent Bohemian waxwing adventure, I spied this peregrine in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, perched on a hospital.
Grand Rapids, Michigan peregrine falcon.

Many middle-to-large Midwestern cities now have a resident breeding pair of peregrine falcons. There are scores of falcon web-cams documenting the private lives of these aerial masters. As bird watchers, I would imagine that most of us are happy to see this impressive raptor. We have become, if you will, a peregrine nation.

I just hope that, when I leave this mortal coil, I'm not reincarnated as a rock pigeon in Parkersburg, WV.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Spring is a Teasing Vixen

Friday, March 18, 2011

I found further proof, thanks to today's balmy weather, that writing about birds is much easier when you can write with the windows open, bird song floating in on the gentle breeze. Spring!

However there is this caveat: Spring in mid-March (at least here in southeastern Ohio) is a teasing vixen. She'll let you glimpse her rapturous beauty and catch a whiff of her sweet perfume, but reach out for her expectantly and she'll slap your face with three days of sleet and snow.

She'll make you watch while she coats the daffodils in frost and forces the timberdoodles to forage in roadside ditches. She'll bruise your heart with her apparent cold-hearted cruelty, but that's just spring's natural way of making you truly thankful when she arrives for real.

And on that day, each year, I drop to the ground and roll around in the new green grass, trying my best to hug the entire Earth.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Talking with the Old Oak

Monday, March 14, 2011
"How can we know for certain," I asked the old oak, "that those are your branches reaching up to scratch the sky? And not your roots, in some weird, inverted universe?"

The sky and snow-covered ground look to be one and the same to my early morning eyes.

"But then my acorns—here's one plonking your head now—would be falling upward, would they not?" answered the oak.

"True. But let me see your roots, then, just to be sure," I replied.

"You don't really want that now, do you?"

"No, I suppose not."

"It is good that you see alternatives to this reality, my friend. But you should also know that there is reality that is real, yet unseen," the oak said.

"Like your roots?" I asked.

"Yes, and yours, too," came the oak's final reply.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bohemian Quest: The Final Day

Saturday, March 12, 2011
Dawn breaks over Harbor Springs, Michigan.

After spending the night inside my wrapped Christmas-present box of a motel room, I got up early, put on every piece of clothing from my duffel bag, and loaded up The Back Breaker for another day of looking for our target bird (also known as tilting at windmills). We thought we'd get on the road by 5:45 am, grab an early breakfast at a local diner by 6 am, and probably nail the Bohemian waxwings by 7. At the latest.

Wearing eleventeen layers of clothing for cold-weather waxwing chasing.

Minor detail: there is no diner open at 6 am in Harbor Springs. So we lowered our sights and grabbed a couple of convenience-store belly bombs and two cups of hot battery acid (with hazelnut creamer). NOW we were ready to go birding.

Down to the harbor we went, arriving well before the sunrise. Gazing out over the frozen harbor, I noted the distinct lack of bird life. No crows, no starlings, no Canada geese. It was 2 degrees F. I couldn't blame them.

We drove around the old familiar places, getting excellent looks at bare fruit trees, piles of snow, and some ice-fishermen out on the lake, still frozen in the same positions they'd been in the day before. We even went back out to the land of snow buntings, where some waxies had made sporadic appearances. We scanned the open water on the lake. Nada.

Heeter scans the open water of Lake Michigan.

The day was slipping away.

I'd sent out another plea for help on the MI-birds listserv and got some good leads on BOWAs both farther north and farther south. Since we were running out of time, we needed to make a strategic move, and fast.

By 10 am I was getting both restless and slightly annoyed. So Heets and I decided to head south to a hopeful-sounding sighting in Traverse City. A kind soul named Holly had e-mailed me to share her day-before sighting of a sizable flock of BOWAs in a neighborhood with ornamental fruit trees. It was time to man up or clam up.

Man up it was. I took a nap while Heeter drove us down the lakefront highway to Traverse City.
We stopped at several places where fruit remained on the trees. No dice. We spotted some tundra swans. And a ring-billed gull. And a pile of rock pigeons. Yawn.

And then we pulled into the un-gated gated community where Holly had seen many, many Bohemian waxwings the day before. We began driving the roads, hoping for a miracle. First street: nothing. Second street: nothing. Third street...


Those dots at 1 o'clock in the tree are Bohemians.

They were just seven or so dots in the top of a tree, but I knew, KNEW, that they were Bohemian waxwings. It's possible that I caught a whiff of their diagnostic aura of patchouli. After gawking at them for three seconds in my binocs, I began scrambling for my various cameras. First the Canon 30D. Clickclickclickclick.
Two shots taken with my big rig Canon 30D.

Then the Leica spotting scope for some digiscoping.

Two shots taken with my digiscoping rig.

And then, like leaves blown by the wind, they lifted into the air and disappeared into the distance. Gone! But we'd SEEN them. How sweet! Figuring we'd find another flock or that this one might return, we left the perfectly manicured neighborhood and went looking for a lunch spot. We found a great little deli a half-mile away and settled in for our first real food of the day. Four spoonfuls into my soup I felt the irresistible urge to check Bohemian waxwing off on my checklist. Geoff caught the moment on video.

And so the journey ended successfully. Sigh of relief.

We headed southward so Geoff could visit his family in Big Rapids and Grand Rapids (lots of rapids in these parts, nearly all frozen solid). We made a stop at Geoff's boyhood home.

Geoff Heeter, 2009 or so model. (photo by Jeffrey A. Gordon)

And I took the opportunity to capture a photo of a photo of good ol' Geoff (I'm OLD GEOFF!!!) from "back in the day." It was on the wall of his parents' house, so I am sure I'm violating some sort of bro-code by sharing it here, but....it's simply too amazing NOT to share.

Geoff Heeter, late-70s model.

So here's to you, Heets! Thanks for making the trek with me, bro. And I've gotta say, dude, if you'd been a singer, with your flowing mullet, you could have given Shaun Cassidy a run for his money.

And that's the story of The New Brohemians and their birding victory over the itinerant Bohemians.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The New Brohemians Head North

Wednesday, March 9, 2011
The unrelenting winter was slowly turning my mind space to slush and mush when I realized, in a rare moment of clarity, that the perfect curative prescription was adding a life bird to Ye Olde Life List. You may recall, gentle blog readers and lurkers, that I have previously broached the subject of the life list.

I'd recently broken my self-imposed ban on list-serves dealing with bird sightings and the two that I subscribed to represented opposite ends of the spectrum. The Ohio Birds list-serv had reports of great birds from around the Buckeye State, but very, very few species that would require a new check mark on the life list. And NARBA, the North American Rare Bird Alert gave me great birds that were at least 2.5 million miles away in places like Caribou Sac, Yukon and Blown-out Flip-Flop Key, Florida. Most were a bird too far.

What I needed was an attainable goal. And there it was, right there (unchecked) in the middle of my life list and making regular appearances on the Michigan Birds List Serv: The Bohemian waxwing.

I posted on Facebook that I was planning this quest and my friend and fellow birder Geoff Heeter (see photo above) sent me a message asking if I needed a co-pilot. The Heets is a fun dude. So of course I said "Sure." [If you'd like further insight into the humanoid critter we call Geoff Heeter, visit his business website, or his birding festival website, or my earlier post here in BOTB about the trip.

So it was all set: the Brohemians were going after the Bohemians.
Massive amounts of gear.

Geoff arrived late on Sunday afternoon at my mom's house in Marietta. He bolted a plate of food, and we loaded up all of my gear (weighing several tons) into his vehicle. Then I folded myself into the passenger seat like some contortionist getting into a Houdini submersion box. The level of discomfort I was to experience during the next three days nearly wiped out the gratitude I owed Heets for agreeing to drive. We could have taken the Birdmobile, but its track record on snowy, icy roads is scary poor.

So, riding uncomfortably in Geoff Toyota truck, now known forevermore as The Back Breaker, we hit the highway headed north to Bowling Green, Ohio, where my friend Annie had agreed (surprisingly) to let us crash for the night. On the drive we spoke of many things, of cabbages and kings, of bees with no stings, of LeBron with no rings, of caged birds that don't sing, and so on.
Birding junk in the trunk.

We passed through Toledo and then Detroit mumbling our respects, respectively to Jamie Farr and Eminem. The farther north we got, the fewer birds we encountered. In fact our bird list, upon stopping for gas and tire air in the town of Old Gregg, Michigan, was:
European starling
Rock pigeon
Mourning dove
American kestrel
Red-tailed hawk
American crow
Snow bunting
Canada goose
some flying ducks
sky pepper

It was not looking good. Yet we pressed on, blindly optimistic that ours was a quest worth taking.

By late in the day we reached the town of Harbor Springs, MI. This is the home of our my friend Sally, who had responded to my query on the MI-Birds listserv asking about Bohemians. She had seen a huge flock of them in Harbor Springs that very day and we were welcome to come up. She, however, was wisely leaving town with her husband before we arrived.

The Michigan birders from the list-serv were very helpful and generous in sharing their BOWA sightings. Geoff and I mapped all of the sightings and concluded that Harbor Springs gave us the best shot—recent intel, plus it was not as far north as Sault Ste. Marie, where MOST of the sightings were clustered. And, being a Michigan native, Geoff was somewhat familiar with the area. [During the next 36 hours I would hear about every youthful misadventure young Master Heeter was involved in during summers spent in Harbor Springs. We'd go past a house and he'd wax nostalgic about some young lassie and a warm can of Hamm's beer. Lucky for us, the statutes of limitations on most such escapades were expired.]

We followed Sally's directions to the letter and found the fruiting trees the waxwings had been, apparently, occupying non-stop for the past month. Most of these trees were along the lakefront streets and nearly all were stripped almost bare of fruit. Not a good sign.
But we could see ample evidence of the carnage—of the raw masticating power of the roving Bohemians.
The snow was stained from the juice of thousands of crushed berries.

We loafed around the harbor and its springs enjoying the quiet of a waxwing-free winter's afternoon. Common goldeneye and common mergansers edged their way onto the trip list. The temperature began to drop from a balmy 12 degrees F so we changed strategies.

We went to the pet store.

I figured it might sell bird seed and therefore the owner might know another local bird watcher and that local bird watcher would know where else we could go looking for the waxies.

Bingo! Within 30 minutes I was talking to a nice woman who was, indeed, a local bird enthusiast. She'd had the waxwings in her yard that morning. We got directions and headed out to her rural home, racing the daylight, which was doing its best to disappear into Lake Michigan.

Then we got lost. Found a general store. Got directions. Found the woman's house and yard, now 100-percent devoid of Bohemian waxwings.

The Waxwing/Bunting Lady's house. She was both nice and helpful.

"They come every morning to eat the fruit on that tree right in front of my living-room window!"

I muttered to myself, feeling slightly wounded.

"Ya can't hardly shoo 'em away once they start eatin'!"

Wound now gushing blood.

"Yeah, I didn't even know what they were 'til I talked to my daughter on the phone and we figgered it out!"

Wound: meet salt. Salt: wound.

Geoff pulled me away, toward Back Breaker. We needed to go elsewhere so I could have my missed-life-bird conniption fit in peace.

And here is where our luck changed ever so slightly. We ran into a big flock of snow buntings. you can read the tale of this in my recent post over at the 10,000 Birds blog.

Snow buntings. In a tree, of all things.

After enjoying the buntings and their weird, tree-perching behavior, we rolled back past the Waxwing Lady's house, just in case we were on an actual roll.

She came out again to chat with us. We told her about the snow buntings.

"Oh yeah, those things come to our feeders round the back of the house every day, all winter!"

I felt my knees begin to buckle.

Back to town we went, but it was to late to see any more birds. Instead we added planked white fish to our gastronomic life lists, got some affordable hotel rooms and crashed out, with visions of Waxwing/Bunting Lady's birds dancing in our heads.

My room had plaid wall paper which made me think I might be sleeping inside a giant Christmas present.

Ahh. Sleep. Let me drift until tomorrow, when I will take on the Zenlike aura needed to ADD THIS #$&(%(+@ BIRD to my life list. But, really, I'm not like that.

I'll continue the saga in my next post.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Day of Days: March 3

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Today is my 48th birthday. Funny, I don't feel a day over 50.

Taking inventory today I find I can make the following statements with complete confidence:
  • My sense of humor stopped maturing somewhere around 16.
  • I went running today and made it about 3/4 of a mile before Nick Nolte's voice came into my head, saying "I'm too old for this $#!+"
  • It's worth it to get up each day to watch the sun rise.
  • Being rich with blessings is better than just being rich (never having actually been rich, I guess this is more of a hypothesis....)
  • I like what I do and I [try to] do what I like
  • I think you can buy T-shirts that say that
  • Music feeds me better than any food (except for my mom's cherry-custard pie, which totally kicks culinary butt)
  • My hair is growing well, but in all the wrong places
  • The aches and pains of growing old are simply there to remind you that you are still among the living.
  • I love the company of my family of friends and the love of my own little family
I'd like to send out some special birthday wishes to my fellow March 3 celebrants:
Ron Tuffel
Valerie Butler
Su Snyder
Holly G. Wallinger
King John II of Portugal (I think this is for whom the Porta John is named)
Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz
Alexander Graham "Cracker" Bell
John Montgomery "Monkey" Ward
Charles "The Scheme" Ponzi
Jean "The Original Hotness" Harlow
Doc "Guitar" Watson
Gudrun Pausewang (perhaps the BEST name EVER!)
"Who will?" Lee Radziwill
Lys Assia (second best name ever)
Perry Ellis
Snowy White
Robyn Hitchcock
Jackie Joyner-Kersee
Herschel Walker
Tone Loc
Brian Leetch
Matt Diaz (Let's Go BUCS!)
Seomoon Tak
Li'l Flip
Jessica Biel
and my special birthday pal John "George Peppard" Kogge

I plan to celebrate with a day of writing (book, blog [check!], and song), loads of my fave food, perhaps a frosty-cold bevvy, and a long walk (with birding) around the farm. Thanks to all my friends over at Facebook for the wishes of the day, for the direct notes I've gotten. Hugs to Julie for her always-sweet annual birthday post.

The biggest thanks of the day goes to my mom, Elsa Ekenstierna Thompson, for giving me this life. And to my dad, Bill Thompson, Jr., whom I miss so very much.