Thursday, December 29, 2016

Capturing Those Sunny Days

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Why is it that we feel so much better on sunny days in the winter? I'm not sure. I could ask The Google and re-purpose some explanations here—vitamin D and pineal glands and what not, but that's not revealing anything you can't figure out for yourself.

I feel better on sunny days because I am grateful for the light. It's a weaker light in winter, here in the northern hemisphere, where the tilt of the Earth on its axis has us leaning away from the Sun's warming rays. The light seems more light-golden yellow on sunny winter days, as though it's tired after its long journey through space to our atmosphere. But I welcome it and let it shine on my smiling face every chance I get.

Most of the trees are leafless here in Ohio this time of year.  I wonder if they feel the same way I do about the winter sun? Does it feel good on their bare branches and bark? Winter sun also brings out small clouds of dancing insects in the mild, still afternoons. Do they feel joy in their dancing? The wing-waving bluebirds inspecting the side-yard nest box seem so pleased with the sunny weather—as if they are ready to start nesting. Does the dandelion that surprised me in the meadow yesterday know that it's out of season—a small miracle soon to be covered by ice and snow? After all, we are months from spring's arrival.

Taking advantage of the rare sunny days in this season is important, especially if, like most of us, you are required to spend five of your seven days in each week in an office somewhere, working. I'm not someone blessed with a natural tendency to "follow the butterfly." In fact I tend to be more of a gotta-always-be-productive personality. I'm trying to do more of that butterfly following, especially as I feel my age creeping higher and I watch my kids grow up and begin to flap their wings on the edge of the nest. I'm trying to do better—to be fully engaged in the moment while working, and also while relaxing during down time.

My goal going forward is to capture as many sunny days as I can—in all seasons. And to feel that sun on my face (with sunscreen when necessary) and the joy that springs from a grateful heart. I'll tuck a few of those moments away and bring them out when the days are gloomy gray and the nights are long and cold.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Honduras Birding for Conservation Tour

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

 For the next two weeks I'll be guiding one of the teams for the first-ever Honduras Birding for Conservation Tour (HBCT). It's a friendly birding competition that raises both awareness and money for bird conservation in this Central American country.

I'm excited to see some new birds, like lovely cotinga, plus getting to see some tropical favorites like toucans, trogons, and even (I hope) resplendent quetzals.

Lovely cotinga, well-named.

There are five teams competing, each with an international guide (Jeffrey A. Gordon, Tim Appleton, Richard Crossley, Adam Riley, and myself) plus a Honduran birding guide. Team/tour participants got to choose which team to be on and we're all competing to see the most bird species. The winning team, and the second-place team, each receive $10,000 to donate to the Honduran conservation cause of their choice.
Birding the Mayan ruins at Copan.

The HBCT was the brainchild of James Adams of Pico Bonito Lodge. He sees it as a way to highlight the birding opportunities in Honduras as well as a way to encourage the Honduran government and people to preserve habitat for birds and wildlife as a way to generate significant tourism revenue.

For some more background into the HBCT, please give a listen to my podcast episode about it.

James Adam, HBCT founder.

I'm not sure if my team will be one of the winners (full disclosure: I've never BEEN to Honduras) but if there's prize for the team that will have the most fun, I'm sure we'll be in the running.

Keel-billed motmot.

Keel-billed toucan.

You can follow along on my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (billofthebirds) feeds, or, follow all the posts from the event on the HBCT Facebook page.

I always consider myself to be so fortunate to participate in such an inspiring and auspicious bird conservation event. Wish us luck!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Suddenly, Juncos

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

I looked out the window on last Monday morning and there was the first junco of the season, on the lawn near the edge of the woods. The arrival of these "snowbirds" as the locals call them coincides with the first real cold fronts of the season. The junco's gray-skies-above, snow-on-the-ground two-tone plumage mimics the winter weather enjoyed or endured by those of us living in the upper two-thirds of North America.

So I guess that settles it. It's officially winter round here. 

As an aside, my Grandmother Thompson swore that my first word was "junco." I was sitting in a high chair, eating Cream of Wheat, when she pointed at the bird feeder out the kitchen window at a junco. She probably said the word first and I repeated it. I'm not going to claim to have any bird identification prowess at all at the age of 18 months.

Friday, October 14, 2016

A Tribute to Bruce DeMoll

Friday, October 14, 2016
Bruce Stockwell DeMoll

I got word from a fellow musician earlier this week that my Uncle Bruce DeMoll had passed away on October 12. He was 86 years old.

Bruce wasn't really my uncle, just my dad's oldest and best friend. He and my dad formed a music trio with their friend Tom Vadakin in their mid-teen years and continued to play together whenever possible until my dad's sudden death in January of 2011. In fact, my dad and I were scheduled to play a gig, subbing in for Bruce, later in the week that my dad died. It was the last thing Dad and I spoke about—he was eager to get better so we could play.

Growing up in a house full of music had a profound effect on my life. My dad playing piano and my mom singing were a more regular soundtrack for us than the TV or stereo. This immersion in melodic sound and the joy that music brought to our family was always heightened when Uncle Bruce was around. In my very early days Brucie would only visit once a year or so, but these occasions always resulted in all-night jam sessions at our house in Pella, Iowa, and later in Marietta, Ohio. I never saw my dad so excited and full of life as when he and Bruce were playing. My dad was a consummate jazz piano player, but he revered Bruce DeMoll as the musical ideal.
A New Year's Eve jam session at 306 Warren St.

Bruce played many instruments well: paint, guitar, flute, clarinet—but it was his saxophone playing that took him around the world, playing with big bands, including the Glenn Miller Orchestra. In the mid-70s when his touring time was over and the club scene in Miami was shifting away from jazz, my dad and Tom Vadakin persuaded Bruce to move back to their hometown of Marietta. It was then that Bruce's life really took shape and his profound influence on generations of area musicians began.

Bruce (with the guitar) was in the band my parents (lower left) formed after they were married in 1956.
Bruce and Dad formed the Duck Creek Ensemble, a sort of jazz dance band that played a few showcase gigs a year with resounding success. With his own combos or solo, Bruce performed thousands of times for weddings, reunions, parties, you name it. He was the first-call player for any show that needed jazz. Any band that was playing a show was thrilled to invite Bruce up on stage to
sit in. He was The Man.

Bruce sitting in with my band The Swinging Orangutangs in 2006.

Yet Bruce's humble demeanor and gentle personality belied his talent. He could play rings around anyone, yet I never heard him brag or gloat. He was a sweet and talented man and I will always think of him as my uncle because he was family.

Once, when I was about 6, I recall being sent to bed during one of my parents' music parties, I had just completed my "star" turn playing brushes for one tune on a metal TV tray in the music room while my dad played some swing blues on the piano. I think Dad was proud to show off my sense of rhythm. I was nervous until we started, then elated as we played. Playing music for people is an addicting feeling. On my way up to bed, I stopped on the stairs, just out of the pool of light coming from the music room, and I watched the lower halves of the adults swaying and dancing. I listened to them laughing and heard them singing to the music being played. I realized in that moment that I, too wanted to be a musician.

My dad didn't make it easy on me. After a few flawed attempts on the trumpet, he sent me away, telling me to come back when I could play. Eventually I settled on the bass guitar and that's when I not only got to play regularly with Dad, but also with Uncle Bruce. About that time, Bruce was coming over to our house several nights a week for dinner. He was a bachelor then and only lived two blocks away. We'd hear the chug of his VW wagon coming up Warren Street and we'd instantly set out another plate for dinner. After dinner he and Dad would ease into the music room and the music would begin to flow. Jazz standards. The music of my life.

There were legendary New Year's Eve sessions at our house—despite the fact that many of the players only got there after finishing a gig at some hotel or party. More than once the music went on until dawn.
Dad and me playing on New Year's Eve.

Bruce's playing always thrilled my dad.

I have recordings on reel-to-reel tape, on cassettes, and on my phone of my dad and Bruce and me playing, and often, my mom singing. Since my dad's death, it's been hard for me to listen to those recordings, because I lost so much music with his passing. I've tried to keep the music alive in my own way, but I'm not nearly the jazz player my dad or Bruce were.

About 10 years ago, Bruce called me to ask if I'd play bass in a trio he had that played a regular Sunday jazz brunch at the Blennerhassett Hotel in Parkersburg, WV. I jumped at the chance. And for the next six years I was there as often as possible, sitting just to his left, watching his left hand. When I joined the trio, the drummer was Chet Backus, another profoundly influential musician who settled in the Mid-Ohio Valley after touring professionally with a variety of bands, including Glen Campbell. To be playing with two giants was a thrill. To listen to and learn from and be surrounded by the music they played was a profound honor. I was in the presence of masters.

When Dad died in early 2011, I took a break from playing in Bruce's trio. The songs and the memories they conjured made me unbearably sad. By the time I was again ready to play, the band personnel had changed—as they are know to do—and, aside from a few substitute gigs, my days of playing with Uncle Bruce were done. The last gig we played was for a charity auction event in Parkersburg, about a year and a half ago. Bruce was his old self, quietly goofy, somewhat spacey, playing piano chord voicings that often buried the melody inside a beautiful bouquet of notes. I didn't know it would be the last time we played. He continued playing gigs until just before his death.
Uncle Bruce at our last gig together, February 7, 2015.

When I heard the news I was sad. "It's the end of an era," I wrote back to my friend Bill, who had told me of Bruce's passing. Then I smiled, thinking how happy my dad would be, because Brucie was coming over to play.

That evening I went out to my dad's grave, in the old orchard on my farm, and I talked to my dad about how much he and Uncle Bruce had meant to me. How much I loved them for the men they were and the music that they gave to me and to the world. And I told him how much I still missed him, my musical North Star. I played Dad some recordings of me and Bruce and Chet Backus playing at the Blenner. And then I put in a request to Dad for our favorite song—one we often started off our gigs or sessions with:—and asked him to play it with Bruce on tenor (not soprano) sax: There Will Never Be Another You.

Here's a song file of my dad and me playing that song.

I love you Uncle Bruce. Let's play the first ending again and then through the verse and chorus one more time.

Here are a few of my favorite recordings from gigs with Bruce.

Song for My Father
Bruce DeMoll, piano
Chet Backus, drums
Bill Thompson, III, bass

The Nearness of You
Bruce DeMoll, piano
Bill Keller, drums
Bill Thompson, III, bass

Round Midnight
Bruce DeMoll, piano
Bill Keller, drums
Bill Thompson, III, bass

Friday, August 12, 2016

American Birding Expo 2016!

Friday, August 12, 2016
We're calling it "The World of Birding in One Place!" 

It's the American BirdingExpo and once again Columbus, Ohio, will be buzzing with birders and birding businesses for three busy fall days, September 16 to 18, 2016. Last year more than 2,500 people and 85 exhibitors, hailing from 35 U.S. states and 31 countries joined us for the first-ever Expo at the Grange Insurance AudubonCenter and Scioto Audubon Metro Park. It was monumental fun, and now we're gearing up to do it all again!

Here's this year's limited-edition Expo poster! Designed and hand printed by Bobby Rosenstock/Just A Jar.

In year two of the Expo, there will be more than 100 exhibitors from all over the world selling and promoting everything a birder could want: birding tours, optics, cameras, gear, clothing, bird feeders and houses, artwork, gift items, books, plus destinations, festivals, birding and conservation organizations, and more.
Stephen Ingraham from Carl Zeiss Sports Optics converses with two Expo attendees.

There will be a full array of optics available at the Expo. 
Have I piqued your curiosity, yet? If so, you might have some questions...

How is the Expo Different from a Regular Birding Festival?
As the Expo name suggests, this is an exposition of birding products, destinations, and services. While many of the continent's best birding festivals have a vendor area as a part of the festival, the Expo is nothing BUT a vendor area, with exhibitors on full display mode for most of three days. It's like a grouse or prairie chicken lek where the exhibitors are the displaying male prairie chickens and the consumers are the gathered females, just waiting to be impressed. 

Of course, there are a few similarities between a birding festival and the Expo. We will offer informal morning bird walks before the Expo opens each morning, and many of our exhibitors will be giving short presentations during the Expo. However the central purpose of this event is to connect the worldwide birding marketplace to North American bird watchers. So that's just what we'll do from noon to 6 p.m. on Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday.

By the way, the Expo is hosted by Bird Watcher's Digest and co-hosted by our friends from the American Birding AssociationGrange Insurance Audubon Center, and Franklin Country MetroParks.

Do Some Good: Expo Conservation Fund
Not only is this a nature lover's very best chance to sample everything the birding marketplace has to offer, it's also a chance to contribute to bird conservation and nature education through the Expo Conservation Fund. We're once again supporting three vitally important causes: one local, one national, and one international with the funds we raise during the Expo. 

Here are the causes that the Expo Conservation Fund supports:
Local Cause: The Young Urban Naturalists Program at Grange Insurance Audubon Center—sharing the wonders of nature with young people from Columbus City Schools. 
Partner: Grange Insurance Audubon Center.

The Young Urban Naturalists Program

National Cause: Red Knot Rescue and Conservation—funding field study and habitat acquisition efforts along the Delaware Bayshore.
Partner: The American Birding Association

The rufa race of the red knot is critically endangered.

International Cause: Save the Hooded Grebe of Argentina—funding the urgent and vital efforts of BirdLife International and Aves Argentinas to rescue this species from the brink of extinction.
Partner: BirdLife International. The American Birding Expo is proud to be a BirdLife Species Champion for the Hooded Grebe.
Adult hooded grebe with chicks on its back.

How Will the Expo Raise the Money? 
I'm glad you asked!

Although entry to the Expo is free, we're asking for a voluntary $5 per person contribution at the door, which will go directly to the Expo Conservation Fund. We'll also be selling tickets 
to the Expo Conservation Raffle with prizes that include discounted overseas trips, more than a dozen binoculars and scopes, giant gift baskets for birders, original art, and a mind-boggling array of other items. 

Deeper Meaning
All of this stuff is really great, but the Expo means so much more to me than just numbers and products. It's like a family reunion with all of my favorite people from all over the world. I've been so fortunate to get to travel the globe, seeing the birds and meeting the birders of some pretty far-off and fantastic places. So it's wonderful beyond description to be the host of an event that gathers the birding tribe from far and near to meet and connect with one another, and to come together to do some good for birds and the future of birding.

Here's a video we recently completed that gives more insight into the Expo.

So, what do you say? Want to experience The World of Birding in One Place? There's only one spot in this hemisphere where you can do that: The American Birding Expo in Columbus, Ohio, September 16–18, 2016.

If you're planning to come to the Expo, consider registering in advance because it has some advantages. Pre-registrants get a subscription to the Expo e-newsletter  plus notifications about specials, invitations to exclusive Expo events, and expedited entry when they arrive. There's no cost to preregister.

I'll see you out there with the birders!

Monday, July 11, 2016

It Was 20 Years Ago Today...

Monday, July 11, 2016

Phoebe Linnea Thompson came into this world 20 years ago today: July 11, 1996. It made me a father and it was—hands down—the best thing that has ever happened to me. I never knew what love actually felt like until I held that precious little redhead in my arms.

It would be humanly impossible to share with you all of my feelings of pride, wonder, joy, and blessed good fortune at being Phoebe's dad. Her mom Julie did a doggone good job of it on her blog yesterday—a day before Phoebe's actual birthday. Gotta spread these things out... extend the celebration.

Our red-headed rocket ship is way out West this summer, studying the ocean currents and making new friends. 

She might be a bit sad at not being surrounded by family for her birthday (a first for her), but, like always, she will rally and end up making her own weather.

It seems like only yesterday that we were sending her off on her first day of pre-school.

And then moments later, we were sending her off to the West Coast to study oceanography.

Phoebe, you are so many things...
A beautiful dreamer...

Great leap (and photo) taker.

Grasper of the moment, appreciator of what is special about home.

Perfect partner-in-crime with your brother, Liam.

 And the living laugh track to his crazy antics.

 Yet you were the one who introduced us to face-swapping in SnapChat. Silly girl.

 Of course, we all want you to continue to grow, and thrive, and spread your wings...

 but I hope you'll always save a spot in your heart...

to be Daddy's girl.

Watching you make your way in this world is our great privilege, Phoebe.

Happy 20th birthday, sweet girl.

p.s. LET'S GO BUCS!!!

Monday, July 4, 2016

Birding Southern Portugal

Monday, July 4, 2016
European bee-eaters—freshly arrived spring migrants —n southern Portugal following a winter in Africa.
At the start of April I found myself on a plane flying from Tel Aviv, Israel, to Istanbul, Turkey. Ataturk Airport in Istanbul was just a short layover stop before flying to my eventual destination of Lisbon, Portugal. I had been in Israel for the Champions of the Flyway bird race in which teams of birders from all over the world compete during a 24-hour period to see the most species. Our team, the Way-Off Coursers, sponsored by Bird Watcher's Digest and Carl Zeiss Sports Optics, didn't win the birding competition, but we did win prizes for doing the most to promote the event and for raising the most money (our team raised more than $12,000!) to support the efforts of BirdLife International in combatting the illegal killing of birds in Greece. I'll post more about Champions of the Flyway in the future here on BOTB.

I was a tad weary from a week of heavy birding in the desert, and now I was headed (and happily so)  to another week of birding, but this time in Portugal—a new country for me.

My friend João Jara, of Birds & Nature Tours in Portugal, had invited me a few times to visit his country, but our schedules had never meshed. This past spring they did, and what a trip it turned out to be!

I was looking forward to a relaxing week of birding in warm, sunny Portugal. Little did I know, my spring 2016 streak of bringing crappy weather with me wherever I went was to continue for at least another month. And I was about to get the mother of all colds from a sneezing seatmate on the flight. But enough of my whining!

João met me at the airport at mid-day and we drove in the rain, across the Tagus Estuary to a small town opposite Lisbon known as Alcochete. I settled in to my charming room in a small hostel and then we headed out for a bit of afternoon birding on the Tagus Estuary. What followed was a week of stunning looks at amazing birds delivered by the expert guiding skills of João. While many of the birds were not lifers (in other words, I'd seen them before, elsewhere) most of the looks I got were the best ever. And there certainly were a number of ossum life birds, including blue rock thrush, azure-winged magpie, Iberian imperial eagle, rock bunting, and little bustard, to name a few.

João Jara at our first birding stop, a cork oak grove on a farm along the Tagus Estuary.ã
The week passed in a happy blur, despite my horrible cold and the windy, rainy, unseasonably cold April weather. João kept apologizing for the weather but there was no need. The birding, the food and wine, the people, the landscape, and the cultural history kept me enthralled with Portugal.

We birded three main regions in southern Portugal: The Tagus Estuary, the Alentejo, and the Algarve. We started with the Tagus Estuary, which is just a 30-minute drive across the river from Lisbon. The Tagus is one of Europe's most important bird habitats, lying as it does, along the primary Eurasia-to-Africa migratory flyway. We saw huge flocks of greater flamingos, all manner of shorebirds, ducks, and wading birds such as storks, herons, egrets, ibises, and bitterns.

View of the Tagus Estuary at dawn from Alcochete.

Mixed habitats along the Tagus include farm fields, riparian areas, and salt pans with a rich variety of birds.

After spending two days birding the Tagus Estuary region, we drove about an hour south into the rolling plains habitat of Alentejo. This massive steppe region is home to some of Portugal’s most sought-after birds: the great bustard, little bustard, black-bellied sandgrouse, plus a spectacular guild of raptors.

We soon found ourselves in the wide-open spaces of the Alentejo, scanning the wildflower-adorned fields for great bustards. 
Great bustard habitat in the Alentejo. The white dots are displaying males.

We found more than 20 of them, mostly males, displaying in a low swale, out of the wind. This fantastic bird stands more than three feet tall, and when a male is displaying for watching females, he lowers his head and flattens his tail along his back, exposing and flaring his undertail feathers. He then walks around slowing in this jouncy, foamy-looking display mode hoping to impress the ladies.
Male great bustard.

While in the Alentejo, we toured a large ranch where the crops are being planted and managed to attracted bustards and other special birds of southern Portugal. Joao's friend George specifically caters to birders and bird photographers by putting up nest boxes for European rollers, little owls, and Eurasian kestrels, and putting up hides (blinds) near lekking areas for bustards and near feeding areas for vultures.

Speaking of feeding, I probably gained 10 pounds in Portugal. But it was worth it, because the food was that good. The Portuguese people put great emphasis on food and I felt it was only polite of me to sample as much of it as I could, being an invited foreign guest.

Our breakfast most days was some fantastic baked pastry and a serious cup of coffee.
Fresh-caught fish on display for dinner in Mértola.

Small fried fingerling fish, a delicious appetizer in Tavira.

Our home base while in the Alentejo was the ancient river town of Mértola. This town has been home to Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, and Christians and the architecture, culture, and people reflect this history. Dig a foot or so into the earth anywhere in town and you're almost certain to find some of the town's past. 

A view of Mértola.
We toured ancient ruins being excavated and restored  inside the citadel, a combined church and castle that looms on the mountain high above the town. While touring we encountered lesser kestrels, blue rock thrushes, white storks, little owls, pallid swifts, and many other birds—perhaps the modern-day relatives of birds that nested here thousands of years ago.

Walking up the road to the church in Mértola.

Our final day was spent in southernmost Portugal in a coastal region known as the Algarve. It was here that Portugal's close relationship with the sea was most evident. Salt pans, where seawater is drawn in and evaporated off to gather the salt left behind, were everywhere. Those pans not being worked by humans were full of shorebirds and waders. A brief drive along the oceanfront got us a number of new species including great skua.

Our lodging near Tavira in the Algarve, was in a former tuna-canning factory now transformed into a luxury hotel. The hotel was surrounded by salt pans and a small tidal river basin with both working and pleasure boats swaying in the tide.

Alas, we soon had to head back north to Lisbon for my return trip home. João treated me to a short city tour of Lisbon the morning of my flight, further impressing me with the rich history and culture of his native country. I was only in southern Portugal for a week, but those days were ample time to land this country on a short list of places I am eager to visit again.

Here are a few other images and birds from Portugal...

Birding the mountains outside Mértola.

The hoopoe is the one bird most of João's clients wish to see.

Little bittern in a wetland complex in the Algarve.
The landscape in Portugal is incredibly alluring. This is from the Alentejo.

Blue rock thrush digiscoped at the Wolf's Leap near Mértola.
BT3 and João Jara, along the Guadiana River, near Mértola.

If you've read this far and are interested in taking a tour with me and Bird Watcher's Digest to Portugal in 2017, please visit this link at the top of our Reader Rendezvous page to sign up for our events notifications. We're planning four to six Rendezvous in 2017—one of which is an 11-day birding tour of southern Portugal with João Jara. Registration details will be available soon, so please add your name to the notifications list so we can keep you in the loop!