Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How to Groom Your Baboon

Wednesday, December 3, 2014
I was fortunate to be invited along on a familiarization birding and wildlife tour of Uganda with my friends Tim Appleton and Dominic Mitchell. The trip has been epic and I'll be posting and podcasting about it in the months ahead. But I just had to share one little scene that we witnessed yesterday.

We've been seeing olive baboons constantly on this trip through Uganda. They are along every road and in our near many villages and settlements. Some of them even stoop cars to beg for food.

This troop was spotted along one of the roads through Queen Elizabeth National Park and they demonstrated a very important lesson in baboon grooming, which I'm pleased to share with you here.

First examine your groomee carefully.

Next, spot a pest or bleb that needs to be removed and carefully remove it.

Examine the removed item closely.

Then eat it to ensure that it does not reattach itself to your groomee.

Receive the thanks from your gromee—you'll know by their body language.
Here endeth the lesson. Go forth and groom your baboons with your new-found skills and knowledge.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Tundra Swan Song

Friday, November 14, 2014
Tundra swans. (NPS Photo/ Tim Rains/via Wikimedia)

Twice in the past week I've heard calling (you can't really call it singing) tundra swans here in southeastern Ohio. The first time was last Friday night just about dusk. I was sitting alone, watching a small bonfire in the fire ring on the hill near our garden when I heard the crazy, high-pitched voices of a flock of tundra swans in the dark sky overhead. Just as my face was breaking into a smile from the realization of what I was hearing—only the second record of tundra swans for our farm—the local coyotes started up, jolted into action I think by the weird, kind of doglike sounds, coming from the sky. I have no idea what the coyotes were thinking but it was a very cool natural catalyst connection.

Listen to a flock of tundra swans:

The second tundra swan episode happened this morning. Bird Watcher's Digest  intern Mollee B. and I were shooting some product shots in the BWD office parking lot when I again heard the swan's anxious yelps. This time it was daylight and, while screaming "HOLY [naughty word]! Tundra swans!" and racing across the lot to alert the BWD staff, I spotted the flock, high overhead.

The swan flock over the BWD offices. I think they came by to check us out!

We all ran out to the front of the building and everyone (except Ann, who ignored my screams—remind me never to go mountain climbing with her—and Dawn, who was out of the office) got to see them. A large V of more than 30 individuals!

I've only seen this species a couple of times here in Washington County, Ohio—usually along the Ohio River in winter. To encounter them twice in one week (and add them to the BWD office list) was a special treat!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Big Sit 2015 Results

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Well, it was close.

The 2015 Whipple Bird Club Big Sit in the birding tower at Indigo Hill started off slower than expected. Snowy tree crickets and other assorted singing insects created just enough white noise to make it hard to hear the calls of night migrating birds overhead. Then, about 4:30 a.m. the wind picked up and took over the job of keeping our heard-only list short.

By the time dawn crept in and the first Big Sit guests began arriving, the bird list total was in the low 20s and the outside temperature was in the high 30s. Brrr.
Yours truly, Captain of the Indigo Hill Big Sit, in the freezing cold pre-dawn.

The morning bird action was hot. Lots of expected resident species: northern cardinal, eastern towhee, Carolina wren, blue jay, American crow, red-shouldered hawk. This was augmented by some expected fall arrivals: yellow-rumped warbler, dark-eyed junco, yellow-bellied sapsucker, white-throated and white-crowned sparrows. We also had a few hold-outs—birds that should have been gone by now: gray catbird, brown thrasher, chipping sparrow, house wren, tree swallow, And then there were the surprises: six thrush species, including gray-cheeked and veery,  Philadelphia vireo, red-headed woodpecker, green heron. We did better on warblers than we did in 2013—a decidedly down year for us. This year we had six warbler species: Tennessee, Cape May, magnolia, blackpoll, yellow-rumped, and black-throated green.

We passed 50 species, then 60. Things were looking really good. Then the cloud cover blew in from the Southeast and it began to drizzle. it continued on and off from about noon until 4:00 p.m. This killed the bird activity more or less. Leaving us stranded at 68 species. Our all-time record for this Big Sit is 72. We could practically smell and taste 73. A palm and magnolia warbler had been our last two adds. One found by Julie Zickefoose, one by Kyle Carlsen. We were hoping that the lifting of the rain would lift the bird activity and our list of sightings, and thus our spirits.
Shila in her rain poncho.
Late in the day in a Big Sit is when you really need to concentrate. However circumstances are conspiring against you. You're tired. You haven't added a new bird to the list in an hour or more. The beer and wine are flowing. You're tired. Now you have to repatriate some of that beer or wine. Your optics are covered in orange Cheeto dust. You're tired.
Kyle and the hands of others toasting a great day before it was over.
David "Tools" Wesel demonstrating how to eat Cheetos, official snack for of the IHBS.
Just when we thought it was all over, longtime Indigo Hill Big Sit participant and the Royal Meteorologist of The Whipple Bird Club Steve McCarthy pulled one out of his bag of birding magic. Scanning a hillside more than two miles away, Steve got a flock of turkeys out for a dusk feeding, before heading to roost. That got us to 69.

We could feel the magic. We could DO this!
We never stop looking.
Alas, a flyover Cooper's hawk in the gloaming (#70) was the only additional species we could muster. As our group began to dwindle and dear friends headed off toward their homes, I remained in the tower hoping for a flyover American woodcock or a late common nighthawk. Nada.

Most Big Sits are full of "what ifs." This Big Sit was prevented from being a record-setter by the afternoon drizzle. But that didn't stop us from having a record amount of fun.
Official beer mug makes the Big Sit beer taste better.
Late in the day the sun came back to taunt us.

Thanks to all the friends near and far who made it to our Big Sit, held their own Sit, or merely participated vicariously via social media (#bigsit). You can see some of the results at both the Big Sit Live page and at the Big Sit results home page.

The official/traditional date of the 2015 Big Sit will be Sunday, October 11. Some sitters will elect to Sit on Saturday, October 10, and that's OK, too.

While the sun never sets on the British Empire, it did set on the 2014 Big Sit.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Big Sit 2014!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Attention Birders Worldwide!

The 2014 Big Sit is coming soon! On the weekend of October 11 (Saturday) and 12 (Sunday) people just like you will be  positioning themselves in the middle of 17-foot diameter circles and watching/counting birds for as much of a 24-hour period as possible.

There's no rule about the number of birders you can fit in your Big Sit circle.
Big Sit teams get the chance at two prizes: one is simply bragging rights for your geographic area. For many years my Big Sit circle had the highest totals in Ohio and I bragged about that until I lost several friendships. The other prize is The Golden Bird, a cash award of $500 sponsored by Swarovski Optik NA. The Golden Bird winner is selected this way: All the species seen by all of the teams are thrown into a hat. One species is chosen to the the Golden Bird, let's say it's winter wren. Then all the teams that saw a winter wren are thrown into a hat and one lucky team is chosen to receive The Golden Bird prize! They are able to use the $500 to support the conservation cause of their choice. Cool, huh?

You can learn more and watch a goofy Big Sit video here. If you need further justification to do a Big Sit, here are my Top Ten Reasons. Teams can register here:

The Whipple Bird Club in the indigo Hill birding tower during the 2011 Big Sit.
Some would argue that The Big Sit is the social highlight of the birding year.
After several requests from participants, and a bit of internal discussion, the Bird Watcher's Digest and the New Haven (CT) Bird Club (the organization that holds the trademark on The Big Sit!™) decided to open the dates for future Big Sits to include both Saturday and Sunday on the second weekend of October. For the 2014 Big Sit, sitters can choose to sit on either Saturday, October 11 or on Sunday October 12. Or you can choose to sit on both days and pick the best one to record for your Sit circle.

The Big Sit is a non-competitive event (although I compete with myself every year to top our Sit site record for number of species). This year we'd love to beat our all-time record of 72 species, but I'd be happy to top last year's measly 55 species. Weather has a huge impact on our numbers in southeastern Ohio. If a cold front comes through the week before, it clears out a lot of our warblers, vireos, tanagers, and other insect eaters.

So please make plans to Sit! Anyone can participate—it's free—and you don't HAVE to register, but we appreciate it if you do. And afterwards, please come back to the Big Sit web pages to enter your bird list and share your sightings. You can even share some of your team's photos. And you can see how your Sit compares with other Sits in your region, state, or country.

Mainly the Big Sit is FUN! It's like a tailgate party for birders. I'm already looking forward to sitting for parts of both days. And if Saturday is rained out, well there's always Sunday!

Good luck and happy, birdy sitting!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

New Podcast Episode: Sketches of Homer, Alaska

Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Last May, I was the keynote speaker at the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival in Homer, Alaska. The festival was really rich in terms of field trips and speakers, the birding was excellent, the people were super friendly, and the weather perfect. My friend Marianne Aplin, a longtime U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service person working in the refuge system, had been inviting me to the festival for a number of years, but, because it usually coincides with International Migratory Bird Day, I could never go. In the spring of 2014 I decided to make getting to Homer a priority and I'm sure glad I did.

Homer is a wonderful small town on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, surrounded by Kachemak Bay. It's about a five-hour drive southeast from Anchorage. While the festival attracts mostly Alaskan birders, the town of Homer supports the festival fully and a lot of Homerites—even non-birders—participate.
Huge turnout for the Beginners' Bird Walk in Homer.
I got a life bird (spruce grouse!), got to see some other really special birds (Aleutian tern, tufted puffin, varied thrush, harlequin duck, and Northwestern crow), met a lot of new friends, judged a bird-calling contest, helped out a couple dozen young birders in a competition, experienced an earthquake, witnessed a birds and beers bash, participated in a beginning birders walk, gave my keynote talk, and played a lot of music.
BT3 with two of the members of the Fledgling Birders group in Homer.
I created a podcast episode for "This Birding Life" about my experience in Homer. If you give it a listen, I'll bet it'll make you want to head north to Homer. As I found out during my visit, Homer is the center of the universe—we're just not sure which universe.

"This Birding Life" is sponsored by Carl Zeiss Sports Optics and hosted by Bird Watcher's Digest.
For more information about the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, visit the Homer Chamber of Commerce website at

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Out There With the Birds!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Longtime readers of this blog may recognize the phrase "out there with the birds." It's been a kind of catch phrase of mine for a long time, used to sign-off from my presentations, my blog posts, and my podcast: "I'll see you out there with the birds!"

Now the content team at Bird Watcher's Digest has borrowed the phrase as the title of our new multi-author blog, Out There with the Birds. Why create a multi-author blog? That's a good question. Multi-author blogs are very popular these days. Two of the more successful ones focused on birding are 10,000 Birds and the American Birding Association blog—both are worth checking out.

Since BWD is a magazine for readers, we tried to emulate that for the blog. If you like reading good writing from new voices in the bird and nature realm, please give OTWTB a try. The topics and subject matter are all over the map. In fact, you never know what you're going to be reading, but we guarantee you that it's going to be interesting, well-written, and worth your time. Dawn Hewitt, BWD's managing editor, is the content wrangler for the blog. Her job is to keep the posts rolling in and to make sure that the blog and its contents help us reach our two goals: to provide engaging, entertaining, thought-provoking content for the blog's readers, and to expose the blog's authors to a new, wider audience.

Among the many authors are some well-known names in the birding realm, such as Bo Beolens (a.k.a. The Fatbirder), artist, author, and marine-life expert Sophie Webb, poet and editor of Bird Watching Magazine (UK) Matt Merritt, as well as newer voices such as naturalist, photographer Erin Gettler, and ace bird photographer Tom Dunkerton. We've had individual posts by a number of other authors, including Jason Kessler, the filmmaker responsible for the Opposable Chums documentary about the World Series of Birding.

The latest post is a guest contribution from Clay Taylor of Swarovski Optik NA recounting his recent Costa Rica birding trip with Birder of the Year contest winner Lyn Stallings. Swarovski and BWD partnered to sponsor the 2013 Birder of the Year (BOTY) contest with the grand prize of an all-expenses-paid, week-long birding trip to Costa Rica, plus a pair of new Swarovski SLC binoculars. Here's a hot tip: the 2014 BOTY contest will be announced soon, so watch for it in the pages of BWD.
BWD's content and events team, from L to R: BOTB, Wendy Clark, Kyle Carlsen, and Dawn Hewitt.

We also include some work from two of our BWD content team—Dawn Hewitt and Kyle Carlsen. Both of these folks are talented writers and avid birders, which is incredibly useful if you're producing a constant flow of bird-related material for a variety of delivery channels. I feel very lucky to have these two on our team.

So please check out the content on OTWTB and let us know what you think of it. Better yet, if you have something you'd like to contribute to be considered for the blog, please contact us via e-mail: bwd AT birdwatchersdigest DOT com. Use the subject line OTWTB.

Thanks, and I'll see you....well, you know the rest!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Ponder This...

Friday, July 25, 2014
Who brings baby storks to their parents?

It's a question that has befuddled mankind for centuries.
 I'd be interested in hearing your conjecture.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Birthday Tribute to Julie

Thursday, July 24, 2014
Happy birthday to Julie!

Who is, among other things...
A wonderful, loving Mom
A mother to thousands of baby birds
A science chimp
An amazing artist
 An enthralling writer
A writer of irresistible songs
And fantastic singer of same
A talented pennywhistler
A gardener with green thumbs (and hands, and feet)
A healer of broken plants and animals
A sought-after nature guide
A world-class speaker/presenter
A runner of country roads
A crazy dog lady (Boston terriers only)
a wanderer in the woods.
and a beautiful, loving (and fun-loving) partner.

With love,

 Here's a beso from our evening primrose.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Happy 18th Birthday to My Favorite Bird

Friday, July 11, 2014
 To my darling daughter on the occasion of her 18th birthday.

You are a miracle to me, little bird. 
You were wise from your first day...

 So alive and deeply aware, for one so young, of the things that make this life wonderful.
Like grandpas who say funny things and then smirk.

 And the perfect arc of a tire swing on a summer evening.

Or the smooth feel of a baby rhino's horn.

You have proven, since your youngest days, that you can be from the country and still have swag.

You are willing to indulge your little brother, who is your shadow, in his Halloween schemes, his wacky dreams, and encourage him to follow in your footsteps.

 Your running footsteps and all the others, too.

Not everyone can go from goofy...

To glamorous as effortlessly as you, Phoebe...

Even the animals of the forest (and kitchen) sense your special nature...

I'd like to take credit for your love of baseball, but that, too, you came to all on your own.
 I am just your happy baseball buddy.

 Your mama has made you into quite the Science Chimp and Nature Girl.


And it's a good thing, because you seem to have met another of your kind....

I was there when you were born.
I have been blessed to see you growing.

 I have seen you pass milestones, one after another.

And now you launch into a new world.
My sweet little bird, it's time for you to fly away.
 But please, oh please, return
for we cannot imagine our world
without you,
darling, beautiful Phoebe.
 Happy 18th birthday to Phoebe Linnea Thompson!