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.