Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Phoebe's Special Birding Adventure

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

 During our recent family sojourn in South Texas as part of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, I was really happy to see daughter Phoebe (age 16) finally really get into bird watching. And because Phoebe was into it, her younger brother Liam (just turned 13) also got into it, though at a somewhat lower intensity level.

Both kids had exceptional birding moments during our six days in Texas, but it's Phoebe's experience that I'll relate here. Liam's we'll share another day.

Julie and I'd been working during the festival as guides and speakers and the kids came along where space was available. They went along on one of Julie's trips and helped me with the large group of young birders on Saturday morning. Then on Sunday we all got to be together on a Breakfast with the Birds trip to a local private ranch called Rio Costero. Al Batt was one of the other guides and he and Liam kept up a constant banter about going "squatchin'." (This means they were going hunting in the South Texas scrub for sasquatch.)

Birding a resaca at Rio Costero.

The ranch was amazing, the birding was engaging, and the breakfast was so good that we all ate too much. After taking the group bus back to Harlingen, our family hopped in the rental car and headed for South Padre Island. We'd promised the kids an afternoon at the beach—they'd never seen the Gulf of Mexico. Well, actually Phoebe had, as a three-year old, but that doesn't really count.

 Being at the beach was really fun. We frolicked in the surf despite a fairly strong undertow. We body-surfed and splashed and ran. The kids asked us to take photos of them leaping with joy.

It was hard to leave the beach, but time was winding down and there was another place, across the street from the beach access, that I wanted to visit: the boardwalk adjacent to the South Padre Island Convention Center. This boardwalk and the natural and human-enhanced habitat around it is a famous birding hotspot. In early spring the birding action is in the small trees between the start of the boardwalk and the convention center. I once did a Big Sit here during the Texas Birding Classic and it was crazy birdy. This being November, the best birding was out in the marsh through which the boardwalk winds.

 Immediately we began seeing and calling out bird after bird: northern pintail, green-winged and blue-winged teal, shovelers, Forster's and royal terns, tricolored heron, little blue heron, roseate spoonbill, American avocet, black-necked stilts. I was pleased at how many of these species Phoebe knew on her own. Liam was riffing on the birds' names—as newly minted teenaged boys are apt to do—and cracking himself up in the process.

Moments before Phoebe's great bird sighting.

We ran into a small flock of familiar Ohio birders who had found an American bittern, which they were kind enough to share with us. Phoebe really like this one and we began telling her some of the natural history of the species. She even recalled seeing them before on our annual trip to North Dakota.

American bittern.
 Twenty or so minutes later, as we were turning around to head back to the car, Phoebe stopped, raised her binocs and pointed, saying "What's THAT bird? Is it another bittern? It looks smaller."
Umm. YES Phoebe, that's a least bittern!

Phoebe's least bittern!

WOW! A two-bittern day! We watched the least bittern fishing for about 40 minutes. We took photos and video. And we reached our Ohio birdpals by cellphone and returned their earlier bittern favor.

Watching the least bittern.

 I can't accurately convey how happy and proud these few moments made me. We've never pushed our kids to get into birding. Sure, we've have forced them out of bed in the wee hours regularly in their lifetimes just to bring them along with us on birding trips. And we've thrust expensive optical instruments into their tiny hands and implored them to get a good look at some fabulous bird or other. But we've never forced them to become bird watchers. Now it seems the metamorphosis is happening naturally. [Which was ALL part of our evil plan from the beginning!]

Phoebe keeping the trip bird list on our Breakfast with the Birds field trip.

Phoebe is already there. It might take Liam a bit longer. It would help if we could just get one good look at a sasquatch. Now THAT would be a lifer!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Ready for Grosbeaks

Friday, November 16, 2012
"Band of Gold: Evening Grosbeaks" by Julie Zickefoose
 I've heard their calls once or twice this season, flying overhead, unseen. I've also heard the voices of bird watchers, breathless with excitement, after capturing a glimpse of these dynamic birds with the massive bills and mustard-colored plumage. Evening grosbeaks!

Yes it seems that this is an invasion year for grosbeaks and other members of the finch family, too, including pine siskins (currently EVERYwhere), purple finches, a few redpolls, and both flavors of crossbill (we still have just two crossbill species in North America as I write this, though the "splitters" are hard at work).

It's been years since we had a serious influx of evening grosbeaks here in southeastern Ohio. I remember a couple of visits to our bird feeders in the early 1990s, but that's about it. Of course many local birders—in fact many bird watchers in the Midwest recall the huge northern finch incursions during the late 1970s. The winters of 1977-78 and 1978-79 were among the coldest and snowiest in modern times. And we had colorful, feisty flocks of finches covering our feeders. I remember filling the feeders almost daily and watching hundreds of evening grosbeaks and common redpolls descending to gorge themselves. We'd started Bird Watcher's Digest in the fall of 1978 in our house, and all the bird watchers' chatter and newspaper articles about the winter finch invasion gave us great encouragement to keep the magazine going.

The male evening grosbeak from Willard Bay State Park in Utah.
The last evening grosbeak I set eyes on was a male lagging behind a small flock of his species in a riverside forest just north of Salt Lake City, Utah. I was birding there with two friends on a morning off during the Great Salt Lake Birding Festival. Seeing a gorgeous male grosbeak, singing and foraging, in green leaves was a bit of a context shift for me. You can read the full story of that birding adventure in this earlier post from this very blog.

Julie's quick snapshot of one of this year's grosbeaks in our gray birch tree.
Julie called me last Tuesday with the happy news that a small flock of grosbeaks dropped into our yard, foraged below the hopper feeder, then vanished. Even my mom reported a flyover evening grosbeak back in October. Now that people all over the region have seen evening grosbeaks, I am getting fully prepared. I know that evening grosbeaks prefer sunflower seed offered on a platform, so I built what may be the world's largest platform feeder by placing an old, weathered piece of siding across the corner of our deck railing. Crafty of me, huh? I poured a large bucket of black-oil sunflower seed onto it and stepped back. Ten seconds later a tufted titmouse dropped in for a seed.

Here's my gargantuan feeder, with my hat and a tiny tufted titmouse for size perspective. Now how could any passing evening grosbeak not notice this? I'm thinking about making some grosbeak decoys (out of French's mustard bottles) and using my iPod to play grosbeak flock calls out the window. But I'm NOT desperate. Not at all.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Happy Birthday Liam!

Thursday, November 8, 2012
With today's activities and festivities, Liam has celebrated his birthday in Texas three times. Today my blond-haired boy turns 13. We're celebrating with some morning birding, then an afternoon time-out while I give a talk at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, then some shopping for some new threads for the birthday dude, then a dinner out somewhere fun. I keep teasing Liam that we're taking him across the Mexican border for a b-day party Carlos E Queso's, which is just like Chuck E Cheese's, but more picante!

He's not buying it!

We call him many names: Po, Shoom, Broski...he puts up with all of them.
 No brother ever adored a big sister more than he adores Phoebe.

 He LOVES the costume fun of Halloween, his favorite holiday.

He is an expert at taking funny photos.

We never want him to grow up and leave home, but we know that day will come. And all too soon.

 Happy birthday, my sweet son. Thank you for coming into my life. I love you.