Monday, April 30, 2012

New Podcast Episode: Spring Sounds at Indigo Hill

Monday, April 30, 2012
There's a new episode available of my podcast "This Birding Life."

This episode (#36!) is a new type, I'm calling "Ear Candy" because it's audio-only. This is my attempt at creating shorter (but I hope no less interesting) episodes in between the longer episodes that come in both audio and enhanced audio (with images) formats. The longer episodes (I'm working on one about birding in Israel right now) take me a much longer time to create, which often means there are long lags between episodes. Which is why I'm hoping that Science can perfect cloning soon.

This episode "Sounds of Spring at Indigo Hill" is built with audio field recordings I did with my iPhone. And there's a bit of narration tossed in between. I hope you like it.

I'd also like to thank Carl Zeiss Sports Optics for their sponsorship support of "This Birding Life" and Podcast Central.

Friday, April 27, 2012

It's Arbor Day! Plant a Tree!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Today (Friday, April 27) is Arbor Day, a holiday with its origins in the pioneer days on the Nebraska plains in the 1870s. Back then, farmers needed to plant trees as wind breaks to keep the plowed soil from blowing away. While I have mixed feelings about most of the Great Plains falling under the plow, which necessitated the planting of trees (that would never have naturally occurred there), I do believe that planting native trees in places where they belong is a good thing. You can read the history of Arbor Day here and learn about the Arbor Day Foundation here.

The Nature Conservancy is using the celebration of Arbor Day to focus attention on their Plant a Billion Trees project. The project focuses on restoration in the Atlantic Forest region of southeastern Brazil. I spent a week birding in this amazing part of the world back in 2008 (you can read a few of my blog posts here.) I witnessed vast tracts of forest, filled with birds and animals. And I also saw thousands of acres where the trees had been removed—often by slash-and-burn—and the land turned over to agricultural use. Some areas were so overgrazed and eroded that they were just bare, rocky earth.

The goal of this restoration project is to plant a billion trees in Brazil's Atlantic Forest by 2015. To help make this happen, TNC is asking for donation of a dollar per tree. More details can be found on the project's fancy, informative website:

Or, if you're wanting to make an impact closer to home, plant a native tree in your own backyard. Then stand back and take a deep breath of fresh air, because (don't forget) without trees, we would have a lot less oxygen to breathe.

Myself, I plan to find a really nice old tree on Arbor Day, put my arms around it and give it a long hug.

Monday, April 23, 2012

More from the Red-shouldered Hawks' Nest!

Monday, April 23, 2012
I spent some time on a sunny afternoon at the end of last week with the spotting scope and camera, watching the red-shouldered hawks at their nest. The few times I stepped inside the back door of the office for a phone call, the action heated up at the nest. I don't think the adult hawks are the least bit perturbed by the activity around our office and parking lot. I just think my timing was slightly unlucky.

We hear the adults calling to one another in the moments leading up to some sort of interaction. One will be on the eggs, glancing skyward occasionally. When he/she see the mate, short high-pitched screams are given, which sends the BWD staff lunging for the nearest west-facing window in hopes of seeing some neat behavior. I've seen a couple of food deliveries and in both cases the one on the nest (the female is slightly larger, but this can be hard to judge) took the food and left to eat, replaced by the food bringer who settled down carefully onto the nest.

Once they are settled down, it's not easy to see the adult on the nest—at least not from our vantage point. The Carolina chickadees, American robins, and blue jays that frequent the upper reaches of the sycamore DO notice however and often set up a racket of protest. I'm curious to see if the Baltimore orioles that usually nest in this same tree will do so again this summer. Having such large neighbors could be good or bad for the quality of the "neighborhood."

This image (above) was snapped with my Canon G12 compact camera on full zoom. It was just prior to this that the bird on the left brought the bird on the right a nice foot-long snake.

The adults are very vigilant around the nest—just like we are!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Red-shouldered Hawk Nest!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Red-shouldered hawk (this image was taken in Mississippi).

All of us at Bird Watcher's Digest are just as giddy as expectant parents. That's because we ARE expecting. A pair of red-shouldered hawks has set up house in a giant sycamore tree in the wooded ravine adjacent to our office here in Marietta, Ohio. We're watching the nest all day long during the weekday work days, noting changes, jumping on the office intercom to announce the latest observations.
The sycamore with the red-shouldered hawks' nest is in the upper left of this image, above the silver mini-van.

Red-shouldered hawks are year-round residents here in southeastern Ohio. We see and hear them regularly—they are one of the most vocal raptors, especially in spring. And that's how we discovered this nest, by hearing the repeated calling between the mates. My mom, Elsa, and brother Andy noticed one of the hawks carrying a branch up to an elbow of this giant sycamore, grabbed some binocs and discovered the foundation of a nest being built on that spot. After that we'd hear the birds and note their occasional comings and goings, but they never stayed near the nest for very long. We actually started wondering if this was just a dummy nest—the real nest being somewhere else—perhaps somewhere more concealed.

Zoom shot of the nest. The female's back is visible (if you use your imagination)

We worried a bit about the nest. It's plainly visible two-thirds of the way up the sycamore on one of only two large branches that jut out from the tree's right side. We have lots of squirrels around (notorious egg eaters), plus plenty of raccoons, American crows, and both barred and great horned owls nearby. Any one of these creatures could consumer the eggs or young while the parents were away. Worry. It's what parents do.
In this image, taken with my iPhone, you can barely see the male red-shouldered rounded head and pale sere above the middle of the nest, against the white sycamore bark.

I've been out of the office for most of the past two months trying to finish the writing on a book project. I come in on Tuesdays for staff meeting and to catch up on office work. Yesterday was one of my in-office Tuesdays and I was very happy to see that the red-shouldereds were actively attending the nest. In fact I'm certain there's an egg or two in it now. I've watched the adults take turns on the nest. Yesterday afternoon the male (he seemed smaller than the female, as male raptors often are) swooped low over the BWD parking lot and up to the nest to deliver a mouse to his mate. She clambered up from her position on the nest brooding the eggs (we hope—we can't see into the nest—it's a bit too high), took the food offering and swooped away. He then very gingerly adjusted something in the bottom of the nest and settled down onto it facing in the opposite direction his mate had been facing. She stayed away for more than an hour before we heard her cries keeyah, keeyah, keeyah! And back she came to resume her incubation duties.

Now it's Wednesday morning and the female is standing near the nest. The male is circling overhead, calling to her. She looks up, perhaps noting that he's got no food this time, and settles back onto the nest.

This is just such a thrill and a privilege to be witnesses to the home life of these wonderful birds! Tomorrow I'm bringing my scope for some digiscoping images!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The NEW Young Birder's Guide!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Well, it's finally here and I'm really happy about that. It's my latest book, the book closest to my heart, and the book that I really wish I'd had as a young bird watcher: The Young Birder's Guide to Birds of North America. That's right, this baby covers the entire continent, not just the East, as the earlier version did.

Writing a book is like baking a cake. You gather the ingredients, mix them all together in the proper order, and pop it in the oven. Then you wait. And 45 minutes and you have a cake! Or, in the case of a book, you wait a year while it bakes to perfection.

This new YBG has 300 of the most common, most commonly encountered, and most awesome North American birds in it. That's 200 species from the original eastern version of the book (158 of which have at least some distribution west of the Midwest) with 100 additional western species added. It's 368 pages and retails for less than $16. If you want one personalized for yourself or the young birder in your life, here's the place to make that happen.

What makes me really happy is that now young (or new) birders in the West have a book expressly written for them—a book that was conceptualized by their peers (my kids' elementary school classes worked on both books. This one is arriving just as Liam is about to leave elementary school and start high school!).

That's Phoebe Linnea Thompson on the left, me in the middle, and William Henry (Liam) Thompson IV on the right.

My hope is that this book, which is intentionally NOT comprehensive in its coverage of North America's avifauna, will be a great starter guide. Any young bird watcher who gets into our wonderful hobby will then be able to step up to a full field guide of his or her choosing.

I'll be hitting the road in a few weeks to promote the new Young Birder's Guide, heading to South Carolina, West Virginia, central and northwest Ohio, Alaska, North Dakota, Maine, and Florida to give presentations on it and, whenever possible, to go out birding with some young folks. If you've got a young birder in your orbit, I hope to see you out there with the birds. Trust me, we'll have fun!

Thanks to my good friends at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for allow me to be a part of the legendary Peterson Field Guide Series. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this...

Sunday, April 1, 2012


Sunday, April 1, 2012
The newly described Dun Mountain Warbler, Pseudoseiurus monochromis, as painted by bird artist Julie Zickefoose!

Dear BOTB Readers:

I’ve been holding this story in for weeks. I’m about to burst with excitement. How often does a bird magazine editor get asked to announce a newly discovered species—in North America?? It’s every bird magazine editor’s best dream. But enough of my yakkin'. Here's the big news!

Ornithologists from the National Bird Observatory (NBO) in Osprey Chalk, Connecticut, are pleased to announce the discovery of a North American bird species that is new to science. The dun mountain warbler (Pseudoseiurus monochromis) was recently discovered by bear hunters on all-terrain vehicles trying to reach forested habitat on the far side of a 10,000-acre mountaintop removal site in southern West Virginia. The species was described by ornithologists from the NBO, who were alerted to its existence when the West Virginia bear hunters (who were being filmed for a reality television show) remarked on camera that "it was the only thing we seen that was alive for miles around."

"This species has apparently moved into the expansive wastelands left behind by mountaintop removal (MTR), and is thriving there," said Patrick Fitzmichael, director of the NBO and chairman of the E. R. Hare Citizen Science Endowment at the NBO. "We found more than 35 nests in southern West Virginia in just one weekend of searching. We think that this population grew out of remnant bands of birds that were living and apparently breeding above the treeline in the Appalachians on scree slopes where no one in their right mind would ever go for birding or anything else."

The natural history of the dun mountain warbler is most unusual. It nests on barren, rocky ground in mountaintop removal sites, laying its eggs among the stones and exposed clay. It flips rocks and pebbles looking for invertebrates, colonizing recent MTR sites, scavenging prey from reptiles and amphibians to insects, even following earth moving equipment with an alert expression and pertly wagging tail, waiting to see what is stirred up by the digging.

The plumage of the dun mountain warbler is described as dirt-brown and gray—or dun—which helps the bird and its cryptically colored eggs to blend in perfectly with their surroundings. Little is known about the dun mountain warbler's courtship, but field researchers were able to catch a short recording of its song, which is described as "a loud beeping tone similar to a piece of heavy earth-moving equipment backing up."

A spokesperson for the Consolation Coal Company reacted this way to the announcement: "We've known for years that our efforts to turn unusable tree-choked mountain habitat into nice, flat, open areas would be good for the environment. If a bird lays a egg on a mountain, what happens? It rolls to the bottom and breaks. The baby bird dies. We're happy that nature is finally realizing that our mining operations not only mean jobs for the local community, but they also make good places for birds to nest. Now THAT's family values, which is what we've always stood for."

Thus far, the dun mountain warbler seems to find its center of abundance in southern West Virginia's coal country, and NBO is mounting expeditions to neighboring states of Kentucky and Tennessee to survey MTR sites there. The future looks bright for this specialized but opportunistic species as mountaintop removal proceeds apace. The Obama Administration has recommended a study to determine if the species needs more breeding habitat. "We're ready to approve more than 150 MTR mine site permits if it means we can help this rare warbler survive and even thrive in the future."

The birding community reacted with great enthusiasm. Jeffrey Giordano, president of the American Birders' Society said. "This is AWESOME! A new bird for our members to chase after. This will certainly be our Bird of the Year for 2013!"

Bill Thomas III, editor of Birders' Watching Digest said, "This is the feel-good birding story of the year! More habitat for an endangered species--and a NEW one at that!"

The Old River Birding Festival in Oak Harbor, West Virginia, will be offering customized tours to see the Dun Mountain Warbler from now through September. Contact the festival at