Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Washington County Big Day 2009

What is that old saying about publicity? I don't care how you talk about me, just talk about me?

Saturday morning, May 9, 2009, came mighty early for those of us who were playing a gig at the Whipple/Wrangler Tavern the night before. But did that stop us from getting up at some ungodly hour to tally birds in the Mostly Annual Washington County, Ohio Big Day? Nope.

When I was a mere boy bird watcher, under the watchful tutelage of Mrs Pat Murphy and my mom Elsa Thompson, it was an annual ritual each May to try to see 100 species within Washington County, Ohio, where we all lived. We called it a Century Day—get it? Century=100 species!

I think I remember maybe one year when we got 100+ species. Nowadays with all our newfangled technology, including the Tubes of the Interwebs and The Google, we can pinpoint the location of happening bird action on a minute-by-minute basis. Our friends can tell us where all the warblers are warblering and where all the tanagers are tanagering.

These days, three full decades removed from Pat Murphy's Century Days, it's The Whipple Bird Club that has taken up the chalice and taken on the challenge of trying to top 100 species in little old Washington County, Ohio. This is an account of how things went on Saturday.

After we finished our gig on Friday night/Saturday morning, we loaded up the vans and cars with gear and everyone hit the road. I stayed behind a moment to collect my thoughts—the only person still extant at The Whipple/Wrangler Tavern. And I was rewarded for my fortitude by the nocturnal flight call of a Swainson's thrush! A mere 20 minutes later, as I traipsed up the walk to the house, I added species #2: An American woodcock which kindly peented its way onto the list.

And then I slept for 2.5 hours.

To start the daylight portion our Big Day, I rolled my tired carcass up the stairs to our birding tower. Day was dawning and the birds were already aloft, calling, or stirring themselves to life. But the clouds in the West indicated a day of unsettled weather. In quick succession I heard or saw a dozen, then two dozen species. By 7:15 am I was up to 45 species. That's when Shila showed up and added her bird-spotting skills to the team effort. The wind picked up and we pulled on additional coats against the wind. At least it was not raining.

The day started off promisingly from the birding tower.

The Whipple Bird Club is four core members: me, Julie Zickefoose, Shila Wilson, and Steve McCarthy. We've got lots of honorary members, but, it's the four core peeps who wave the flag of the good ol' WBC.

Every Big Day has a few birds that are total surprises and a few that completely skunk you. One of our early surprises was a merlin that Shila and I saw skirt the tower not once but twice! I got a bad photo of it flying away, having missed on its chance to nail a tree swallow.

Julie floated up the tower stairs about 8 am, bearing more coffee and some munchies. We were somewhere north of 50 species. Three hours later we were ready to leave Indigo Hill for the rest of the county and we had 70 species.

Pine siskins were still hanging around after last winter's influx.

A gorgeous male rose-breasted grosbeak came close enough for digiscoping.

Our male blue-winged warbler sang from the end of the orchard.

Phoebe and Chet came up to check on us in the tower.

Down the road just a couple of miles, we came across an eastern box turtle. It was a beautiful adult male and we helped him across the road to wherever he was going.

The box turtle we saved.

The Whipple Bird Club flashes its gangland hand signs near the Belpre Bridge (where there were no peregrines).

After poking around the western part of the county in a largely fruitless search for some long-shot species, and waiting to pick up the Royal Meteorologist of the WBC, Steve McCarthy, we headed back toward Marietta, the county seat, for some more familiar birding turf. We got the bobolinks not far from Route 676 where they've nested for a few years. We got American kestrel and killdeer there, too. Then it was off to the Kroger Wetland for some target shorebirds. We got both spotted sandpiper and solitary sandpiper there, plus willow flycatcher and house wren. A bonus yellow-billed cuckoo flew over. We dipped out on phothonotary warbler, however.

It was 5:00 pm and we had 96 species. The county record (unofficial) is 110 set by Steve, Shila, and me in 2007. We ate LEAST wanted to tie that. Preferably we'd beat the living tar out of it.

Spotted sandpiper at the Kroger Wetlands.

Steve scans the Kroger Wetlands while Liam and Phoebe dream.

Then we headed up the Ohio River for some other hopeful hotspots counting every species we got and plotting to add the next bird. We ran into a streak of shorebirds at the tank farm along Ohio 7: greater and lesser yellowlegs, plus an unexpected snowy egret. Then we hit Newell's Run. By this time it was already dinner time and the sun was sinking below the hills. We added a few of the expected warblers along Newell's Run: Louisiana waterthrush, yellow-throated warbler, and
Trying to drum up a few target birds on Newell's Run.

Bored kids will find something to climb.

By 8:30 pm we were deep in the woods of Wayne National Forest, hoping for a cerulean warbler. We got no joy. By 9:10 pm it was actively dark and the kids were weeping from hunger (as were we). A calling whip-poor-will came in as species #108 and we called it a day.


We pulled out ALL the stops in our effort to find more than 100 species.

I stepped outside the house a couple of times before midnight, but the wind was howling and the rain spitting and I knew that no self-respecting owl would be calling in such weather.

108. One shy of tying the record, which still stands.

Of course, the next day dawned clear and sunny and still and I felt like doing it all over again.
But would I?

Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Caption Contest #5 Winner!

Although excellent birders, the Thompson family was still trying to get the hang of their new tabletop jigsaw.

Congratulations to CyberThrush for submitting the winning caption. But in my mind and heart, every ONE of you is a winner!


Also really funny:
Heather:
"Whipple birders, can I get a "WHAT, WHAT, WHAT, WHAAAAAT!?"

April:
Fo shizzle my bizzles. We be BIRDIN'! Word to your mother!

Patrick Belardo:
Whipple in the HIZ-OUSE!

LittleOrangeGuy:
Them Thompsons is hyper.


Heather & Dan:
This photo illustrates that after the economic downtown, the hand sign for "Live Free and Prosper" has declined by about 40%.

Some back story:
This photo was taken two springs ago, not far from Whipple, and shows 3 of the 4 core members of the Whipple Bird Club throwing down our birding gang sign. It's a W for Whipple.

I believe we'd just found a Kentucky warbler. The short birder in the front in Liam. Phoebe took the picture.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Starting the Year Off Right

For the past 20 years of my birding life I've tried to start each new year off with a good bird, an exciting field trip, or at least SOME sort of birding activity. This, unfortunately, often comes into conflict with the revelry of New Year's Eve, especially in years when I am playing music for someone's party. Arriving home in the wee hours of New Year's Day, crashing hard, then waking up well after the sun's appearance has usually meant that the new year starts off with a cup of coffee at 11 am, accompanied by a bleary cardinal or two at the feeders.

I always note my first bird of the year. Last year it was an American goldfinch. I'll tell the tale of this year's first bird in a future post.

The subject of today's post is the first stop on the birding trip Julie and I took on New Year's Day with our pal Shila. We called all the members of The Whipple Bird Club to organize an impromptu field trip for January 1. The fact that it was already nearly noon on January 1 was of no concern.

The Whipple Bird Club may be the only bird club in the world with its own gang-style hand sign. From left: Shila, Steve, Bill, Julie.

Shila could make it. Steve could not. Our destination was The Wilds, a recovering strip mine about 40 minutes north of Indigo Hill. The soil there is too poor to support trees, so it remains grassland and thus attracts birds that prefer vast open spaces: northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, short-eared owls, horned larks are just some of the winter species regularly found at The Wilds.

Before we could head north, we had to head south into town to drop of kids at my folks' house and to pick up Shila. En route to Shila's abode my cell phone rang. It was Steve.

"Billy! I've got a bird here that's different. Can you help me ID it?"

Now I know enough about Steve's birding skills to realize that he would not be fooled by a female red-winged blackbird, a leucistic house sparrow, or a winter-plumaged starling.

"I think it's something good."

We high-tailed it to Steve's and this is what we saw at his thistle feeders:

How many bird species are in this photograph (above)? Two? Three?


Is this any more helpful? There's an American goldficnh (upper left), two pine siskins on the upper and lower right. And...



An adult female common redpoll!

Steve had found a common redpoll among the 30 or so pine siskins at his feeders. We waited for about 40 minutes before the redpoll showed up and when it did, Steve's the one who spotted it for us. This was a great bird to see so early in a new birding year!

From the reports I've heard this is a big pine siskin year and a big white-winged crossbill year here in Ohio. We've had siskins at the Indigo Hill feeders for a month, but no other special northern finches have visited us (evening grosbeaks, crossbills, redpolls). However Steve's bird gives us all reason to check through the feeder flocks.

I first saw common redpolls at the Thompson family feeders in Marietta, Ohio in the winter of 1978—the very same year we started Bird Watcher's Digest. They came in with some evening grosbeaks and siskins and stayed for more than a month. They all came back the following year, too—both '78 and '79 were fierce winters. Little did I know it would be 14 more years before I'd see redpolls in Ohio again. We've had two visits—both short and more than a decade ago—from common redpolls at Indigo Hill. The last one we saw here was in 1994.

So this lone female common redpoll is a special bird, seen with great birding pals, on the very first day of a new year. Here's hoping 2009 turns out to be a special, memorable birding year for all of us!

Labels: , , , , , ,