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.