Tuesday, December 29, 2015

New Podcast Episode: "Backyard Rarity, Part One"

Tuesday, December 29, 2015
Western flycatcher. ©Bill Thompson III
On Sunday, December 13, just after noon, I was dumping a bucket of vegetable scraps on our compost pile next to our garage when a small, weird-looking, greenish bird flitted up from the brushy thicket in front of me. It was a small flycatcher, like an Acadian flycatcher, but the field marks didn't fit. In fact, the more I looked at this bird, just 10 feet away (naked eye—I wasn't wearing binocs) the more I realized that it was something completely different.

It had a rounded crest at the back of the head. It had an oblong-shaped, bright white eyering. It had buffy wingbars. It's breast and belly were a yellowish-green. It was flicking its wings and jetting its tail. Its large-looking bill had a pale lower mandible. And it was in southeastern Ohio in mid-December, when most North American flycatchers should be somewhere in the tropics.

The bird moved and I bolted inside for binocs, a camera, and Julie. We raced back out and, after a few panicked moments, re-found the bird. After some wild conjectures, we finally came to the conclusion that this was an Empidonax flycatcher. After we eliminated all the eastern Empids, we moved on to the western ones and BAM! Arrived at the western flycatcher complex, a single species that was split in 1989 into two distinct species: Pacific-slope flycatcher and cordilleran flycatcher.

And that's when the fun really began. The latest episode of my This Birding Life podcast, "Backyard Rarity, Part One," covers the experience of finding, identifying, and sharing of this rare bird. Give it a listen for free at Podcast Central, or on the iTunes podcast channel.

 This Birding Life is hosted by Bird Watcher's Digest and sponsored by Carl Zeiss Sports Optics and Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Adventures.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

My Love of Fire

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Though I always enjoy an outside bonfire, there's something primal in the desire for making fire when the weather turns colder. Perhaps it's a way, rooted in our cave-dwelling origins, to lengthen the dwindling winter days. Some people rely on full-spectrum light bulbs to chase away the winter blues. I use fire.

Our house has a grand fireplace in the living room. But it was designed for looks, not function. The smoke box is too small to draw effectively, and so trying to burn wood in the fireplace merely results in turning our house into a giant wood smoker. We have gas logs now in the fireplace, but because our gas comes right out the ground from our well, it burns dirty and leaves a lot of black carbon on all surrounding surfaces. So it is used sparingly. Often only when our power is out and the furnace blowers won't work. Or on special occasions, like Christmas.
Gas logs in our fireplace.

So I make fire outside every chance I get this time of year. If I can combine cooking with the fire, even better. But I must have fire.

Lucky for me I live on 80 acres of wooded paradise in southeastern Ohio, so I've got plenty of free, already downed wood, and lots of room to make a fire circle. For fires close to home, I use an old tractor tire rim as an enclosure. Farther afield I use whatever rocks are available to create a safe circle for burning. I never burn in the woods when it's been dry. Wherever I burn, I clear away all natural material that could potentially become fuel. Safety first, always.

Finding myself home both days of this past weekend, I knew I'd have to answer my caveman urge and make fire. Son Liam is now my caveman understudy and he helped me get the fires going on both nights. Sunday night's fire was especially enjoyable because the sunset was raging across the western horizon.

Our house with a burning winter sunset.

Here's what it looked like.

I keep an old woodpile stocked nearby for just such occasions. Most of my fires are modest in size, so one or two logs tossed on top usually give us plenty of flame and heat—and just enough burn time to enjoy.

Liam and I have a long-standing tradition of cooking hotdogs over a bonfire. We do this at every opportunity. In fact, when Liam was just an handful of years old, we formed a secret society, The Hotdog Brothers. And we held (and still do) our secret, guys-only meetings when our womenfolk were away. We're not beyond letting Phoebe or Julie sample a hotdog from our culinary gatherings. But they must not be allowed to sing our sacred song.

An early meeting of The Hotdog Brothers.

We heed the siren call of our tradition and of our Hotdog brethren gone before us, all the way back to the cave. We build fire. We gaze into the dancing flames and breathe the cold night air, tinged with wood smoke. We hear the coyotes and barred owls over the fire's crackling whispers. And all is good and right with the world.

That's Liam on the right in this photo by Julie. He's nearly as tall as I am now. But he still loves fire.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Events Swirlwind

Tuesday, November 10, 2015
As you can see from the embarrassingly long time gap between my last BOTB post (other than son Liam's birthday salute) and this one, I've been otherwise occupied, mostly with events.

Going back to August... first there was the Rain Crows' weekend-long tour of Columbus, Ohio. We played the fabulous Birds, Bands, and Beer fundraiser event for the Grange Insurance Audubon Center. It was a glorious night of music under the stars. The next night we played a private party at the Columbus Zoo for our pals Kim & Amy. It was a combined birthday/retirement party for these gals and the riverfront pavilion was jammed with their friends. We jammed, too, as black-crowned night herons flew overhead in the evening glow. Our favorite fiddle player Jessie Munson joined us for these two shows, flying in from Memphis for the occasion. It was heaven on a stick.

The Rain Crows on stage at the Birds, Bands, & Beer event.

Next for me was the British Birdwatching Fair at Rutland Water Reserve in central England. I've posted about the BirdFair before here on BOTB. But you can also get a feel for it from several of my podcast episodes. The BirdFair is a great event—the largest of its kind in the world. Every major birding destination, all the optics and gear and feeder and clothing and content and tour companies are there, along with artists, organizations, much more. Plus there's beer. My good buddy Tim Appleton is one of the co-founders of the event and seeing him is always a highlight. These days I go to see my friends from around the world as much as I go to do actual business. My main mission for the 2015 BirdFair was to let exhibitors know about the American Birding Expo which was coming up just two months later. More on that in a moment.
Visiting with my friends at BirdFair from INGUAT Guatemala.

The BirdFair raises funds for important bird conservation causes.

A day after returning from the BirdFair, I was on my way to Jamestown, NY for a board meeting of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute. I've just started my second board term for RTPI. This is something I do to help repay in some small part the incredible support and many contributions Roger Peterson made to our family business, Bird Watcher's Digest. He was an early mentor to us and, later, a regular columnist for our magazine. RTPI carries on his legacy of sharing the joys of birds and nature. Supporting RTPI by becoming a member is a fantastic way of "paying it forward" to the next generation of birders and naturalists.
Roger Tory Peterson.
 Also part of the weekend was the opening of the Society of Animal Artists show at RTPI. I was a judge for the show, along with fellow board member Lee Peterson (Roger's son). We debated the merits of a huge array of works, with the assignment of choosing a handful to be awarded special recognition and prizes. It was tough, but enjoyable work.
My fellow judges for the SAA show included Lee Peterson (left), son of RTP.
The works submitted for the show were inspired.

Two weeks later, my events team was off to the Midwest Birding Symposium in Bay City, Michigan.

BWD was partnering with Michigan Audubon, the Saginaw Basin Land Conservancy, and the Great Lakes Bay Region Conventions & Visitors' Bureau, to host the 2015 MBS in this charming town on the Saginaw River. This was the first time the MBS had been back in Michigan since 1991 and a good time was had by all.
The opening night festivities at the MBS were a lot of fun.
Visitors to Bay City's Stein Haus.
Brian "Fox" Ellis came alive as John James Audubon in an MBS keynote talk.

Two weeks after the close of the MBS, I loaded the birdmobile full of all manner of stuff and headed to Columbus, Ohio to prepare for the first-ever American Birding Expo.


Through the week, nearly the entire BWD staff arrived at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center/Scioto Metropark in downtown Columbus, Ohio to get things ready for the Expo. Just prior to the Expo, we helped host the American Birding Association's first-ever Members Summit, which went very well, according to our ABA friends. The ABA, Grange Insurance Audubon Center, the Columbus Metroparks, and BWD served as Expo host organizations, but the bulk of the organizing rested on the wide shoulders of the BWD events team and I couldn't be more proud of how they performed. We also had a small army of volunteers who saved our bacon more than once.

Attendees visiting exhibitor booths in the main Expo tent.
Maven Optics was an Expo exhibitor.

BWD Events Director Wendy Clark interviews Alvaro Jaramillo for the Expo video.

Saturday night we had live music from The Hip Replacements.

José Miguel Fernández Ramírez (right) was the lucky winner of the Zeiss Victory SF binocular, being presented by Zeiss' Rich Moncrief.

The Expo featured more than 80 exhibitors from all over the world. In fact we had 46 countries and 43 U.S. states represented among the exhibitors, sponsors, and attendees. The event was met with nearly universal praise from attendees, exhibitors, and hosts. Despite two days of cold, rainy, windy weather (with most of our exhibitors in a large tent) we all survived, did some good business, and made a lot of new friends and connections from the worldwide birding community.

New friends at the Expo Mary Warren of Ohio and Herbert Byaruhanga of Uganda.

More new friends: Simon Thompson (left) of Ventures Birding and Andrew Sebastian of Tourism Malaysia and  the Asian Bird Fair.

 * * * * *

Here it is now, in mid-November, and I'm just starting to get my legs under me again. That was a whirlwind three months, but I loved (almost) every minute of it. We're already planning next year's events and it would be great if you could join us.

You can keep in touch with what's going on here at Bird Watcher's Digest by signing up for BirdWire our bi-weekly e-newsletter (it's free). BirdWire is an award-winning digital publication that's full of timely content, fun bird quizzes, and special offers from our marketing partners. More than 30,000 people receive BirdWire in their e-mail In Box every other week. Do you?

A recent issue of BirdWire.

Coming up in 2016 we have three Reader Rendezvous (special birding weekends for BWD subscribers), the second annual American Birding Expo, and I'll be participating in a neat new event in November: the Honduras Birding for Conservation Tour. I'll be leading a team in a week of birding, competing for a cash prize for a conservation cause in Honduras. It's going to be fun and we're going to see amazing birds.

So I'm taking my chewable vitamins, getting plenty of rest, and stretching my body, mind, and spirit in preparation for a 2016 that is even busier than 2015!

I'll see you out there with the birds, amigos y amigas!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Sweet Liam's Sweet 16!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Of all the reasons to sweep the cobwebs off my blog and do a new post, perhaps this is the very best one.  Our son Liam is turning 16 today. We've had a tradition of posting about our kids' birthdays since the dawn of blogging. It's impossible to create anything that compares to the lovely post that Julie did for Liam just yesterday, but I'll try. I want to show you this fine young man of whom I am so proud, and I'd like to make him cringe just a bit at some of the photos I'll share.

How lucky are we to live in the golden age of photography—especially for capturing candid, grab-shots of our friends and loved ones. Some people decry the omnipresence of the "selfies" that overwhelm social media, but I look at it as a documentation of my journey upon this mortal coil. And when it's time to dive into that photo history, untold riches are waiting to be uncovered.

Here are some of the riches I found while wandering back in time with an eye on Liam.
A favorite all-time photo. Baby Liam resting on his dad's chest. We were both zonked.

When he was small, Liam loved trains. We used to race to see them when we heard their horns.
Three William Henry Thompsons. Junior, III, and IV. I'm so happy my dad and Liam knew each other.

Perhaps my second all-time favorite photo. With little Phoebe and Liam.

Liam has always been an artist. Any medium will do.
Now his art is getting much more focused and he posts it on Instagram (@broskizzle).

He loves posing with giant stuffed birds. This is the Pirate Parrot.
This one is at a Red Robin somewhere in the USA. Liam is thrilled. Phoebe is freaked out.
And speaking of Phoebe, she and Liam are best friends 4-ever!

She helped him through his fedora phase.

She helped him through his singing recitals.
She's lead him on long walks of discovery.
They have such a wonderfully close bond.
They almost never want to scratch each others' eyes out.

And we were all sad when Phoebe went off to college.

But none sadder than Liam, who had to go to school without his North Star to guide him.
At Fort Frye High School, Liam runs on the cross-country team. He's the tallest on the team.

If there's a goofy photo to be taken, it's a lock that Liam will be in it.
Ducking behind a Frankenstein face this Halloween.
Creative use of water balloons.
PhotoBooth fun.

Us as tarsiers.
Liam's other best friend is Chet Baker. They are brothers.
Both are getting older so quickly.

We've celebrated Liam's birthday in Texas a few times, at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. The last time we did, he found us a pauraque.

He pointed to it right away and said "There's one right there, Dad!" It took us a while to see what he was seeing.

Liam and I have a secret club called The Hotdog Brothers. Whenever the girls are away, we hold our meetings.

We talk about important things. Like girls.
We always have a bonfire and roast things on it—usually hotdogs.
And we rejoice in our caveman-like skills and freedom.

These days Liam prefers more interesting foods,  like sushi.
And filet and lobster. This is Liam's Granny who treated us to Liam's birthday dinner.

Today is Liam's birthday! We've got lots of fun planned, but his best gift will be in a few weeks, when he gets to see Phoebe again.
No one makes her laugh like Liam.

So thank you to the sweet son who always makes me smile. Who makes our lives immeasurably richer.

They say we look a lot alike. This is me at 18.
This is Liam at 16.

Liam got to read his mom's post this morning—his actual 16th birthday morning—just about the time he was born, way back in 1999.
So happiest of birthdays, son. I am so proud of the man you are becoming.

Love, Dad.