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.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Roadside Attractions

Thursday, November 3, 2011
In January 2010 I took daughter Phoebe to Florida for The Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival. We did a number of speaking gigs at the festival and at local schools. It was really cool to see Phoebe interacting with kids her age from the Florida schools, showing them, without a doubt, that birding is not just for nerds.

It was a highlight of my years as a Dad to be able to show Phoebe her life alligator, armadillo, manatee, bobcat, and a score of birds, including the endangered Florida scrub-jay. But there was one Florida lifer that eluded us: the giant roadside attraction.

On Sunday, when the festival was over, we headed for the Orlando airport by a roundabout way. A giant alligator at a roadside attraction provided a perfect memento for Phoebe. We stopped, she got out, and we took a few photos with this big-as-a-tractor-trailer gator.

I love this image because it shows my little girl, who is no longer a little girl, in full "hurry up and take the photo, Daddy!" posture. What a gator! What a trip! And what a girl! We really need to do another daddy-daughter trip before fledges into the wide world on her own two wings.