Monday, May 18, 2009

Warblers Up Close

Bay-breasted warbler, probably an old female, at Magee Marsh.

Having lived in Ohio for most of my birding life as a grown-up (relatively speaking), you'd think that catching the phenomenal warbler and songbird migration at Magee Marsh along Lake Erie's southern shore would be something I'd experienced annually. Most avid bird watchers in Ohio (and in the surrounding states for that matter) get to Magee at some point during the height of spring migration—between mid-April and mid-May.

To a migrant songbird in spring, Magee Marsh is the perfect rest stop before flying over Lake Erie and into Canada. When the wind is blowing from north to south (a headwind for migrants) the birds drop into the trees at Magee to rest, forage, and wait for more favorable traveling weather.

I'd been to the famous Magee boardwalk in spring, but always a bit too early or too late to catch many migrants. And I was there once with a team of birders trying to break Ohio's Big Day record. We timed things perfectly for everywhere in the state, except Magee, which was practically birdless on that May morning. Perfect weather—clear skies and a south to north wind—encourages the northbound birds to keep on moving across Lake Erie. And we chose for our Big Day attempt, a perfect weather day for the birds to keep on flying north. We ended that day deep in the wilds of southern Ohio, with 186 species (well short of the record) and with a bunch of unchecked boxes among the warblers on our checklist.

Last weekend the Ohio Ornithological Society held its annual meeting not too far from Magee Marsh. As a board member of this fine organization, I was required to be at the meeting, with the happy knowledge that it would REQUIRE me to spend two mornings watching birds at one of North America's most famous warbler hotspots.

The first day, Saturday, was overcast but warm at the start. By the time we left Magee around 11:45 AM to head to some other local birding sites, it was getting cooler and starting to rain. Still, we saw 20 warbler species, three vireo species, three thrush species, and so on. It was my best day ever at Magee. My fellow bird watchers chuckled at my enthusiasm.

Then came Sunday. Sunny and cold at daybreak, it did not really warm up until well into the afternoon. Bird watchers along the boardwalk gathered in crowds within the scattered pools of sunlight. If I'd thought Saturday was good, Sunday was amazing. Thousands of newly arrived birds moved through the trees, brush, and undergrowth. Everywhere you looked there was movement and song. People called out warbler names to no one in particular, with a mixture of joy and wonder in their voices. I thought to myself: This must be what heaven is like for birders. Except heaven would have a few more Porto potties and beautiful angels would be plying us all with warm doughnuts and hot coffee. But this was pretty close!
The boardwalk at Magee is crowded with bird watchers from late April through mid-May.

There were more female warblers present on Sunday, and more young, first-spring males, giving us a chance to note the subtle differences in plumage. However the most incredible thing about Sunday's bird action was the behavior of many of the migrants. Whether it was hunger, the cold temperatures, or just the rush of the migratory imperative, many of the warblers were low in the vegetation, foraging and singing actively, seeming to be oblivious to the humans a few feet or even mere inches away! And it's not like we were all being quiet and respectful. Cameras clicked, beeped, whirred, and flashed. Birders shouted to one another and narrated the birds' every moves:

"OH MY! LOOK at this bird! COOL! He just caught a bug! Now he's flitting over here! He's attacking that other bird. Oh, he's gonna poop! WOW! What a great LOOK! I can't BELIEVE THIS!" and so on.

But that was not all.

I heard at least three throaty cries of ecstasy—the kind of sounds that are usually accompanied by bad dialogue, cheesy jazz, and a rating beyond the reach of NC-17.

Like I said, the birding was good.

To illustrate one of my own close encounters of the warbler kind, here is a short video (rated G) that I shot with my point-and-shoot camera.
video

You can hear some birders talking in the background, including Jon Dunn, author of several key field guides, including the National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America. This male black-throated blue warbler was less than two feet from me, on the trunk of the tree, completely unperturbed by all the chattering humans draped in expensive optics.

I already know where I want to be when the birds come back next May.

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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?

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Wet Birds & Birders

A (wet) male black-throated blue warbler on Sugar Creek Mountain.

The rain came down on a regular basis from Tuesday evening through Sunday morning at the New River Birding Festival near Fayetteville, West Virginia. Wet weather is typical of the Appalachian Mountains in spring—it's one of the reasons the area is so lush and green.

While the bird watchers were undaunted by the precipitation, it was horrible for bird photography. I didn't even bother carrying my camera outside the van on most of the trips I lead. There was no light and nice cameras and wet, humid weather are unhappy bedfellows.

I did manage to get a few non-keeper shots of my favorite warbler: a male black-throated blue warbler which we found on the Sugar Creek mountain trip. There's something about this bird's color scheme that I find incredibly appealing. You can see how wet it was—there are water droplets on every branch in the photo!

More from the New River Birding & Nature Festival tomorrow when I will take you on a tree-top adventure.

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Thursday, April 30, 2009

New River Postings (or not)

Worm-eating warbler, singing between episodes of eating worms.

Gentle readers of Bill of the Birds. I am back at the New River Birding Festival, which this year has seen an infestation of bird /nature bloggers like you would NOT BELIEVE! Anywho, this makes it nigh on impossible to get any posting done for several reasons:

1. There is not enough bandwidth to go around, so the connection is gone by the time I am free in the late afternoon or late evening.

2. The birds call me forth to the glorious montane woods and I forget myself.

3. Warblers, baby!

I beg your forgiveness for my sporadic posting. Please bear with me and I will share some tales from this grand event and location.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hog Island Butterbutt

Male yellow-rumped warbler.

The sun came out for a few hours this afternoon on Hog Island and the birds went crazy. This male yellow-rumped warbler was particularly cooperative perching in the dawn redwood that was planted in the main camp yard.

He made sure we knew why his nickname is "butterbutt."

Sorry to be so brief, but we're birding from dawn to dark and eating like, well, hogs.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Scenes from New River

Dear Readers:

I am still laboring to fill the pages of this new (temporary I hope) home of BOTB all the while living in the transient state known as Bizzyville. I got home last night from the chilly rain-soaked hills of West Virginia. I head out tomorrow for the human-made mountains and canyons of New York City.
I'll be doing a few media thingys in NYC. If you've got Sirius Satellite Radio, tune in to channel 112 for The Martha Stewart Living Today radio show on Thursday, May 15 at 2 pm to hear the host, Mario Bosquez, interview me about The Young Birder's Guide.

To prepare my brain for The Big Apple, I am meditating on my time in the Appalachians with good birds and good friends. Here's a final visual sampling from The New River Birding Festival:
Bucolic farm scene from Glade Creek Road.

Event host Geoff Heeter feeds The Wild McCormac breakfast before a field trip.

Wild pink azalea growing in swampy woods near Fayetteville.

A beaver swamp near Fayetteville where Paul Shaw and I tramped around looking for prothonotary warblers. No prothos, tho.

Leaping Canada warbler.

This blue-winged warbler sang a perfect golden-winged warbler song. Clearly he's a GWWA trapped inside the body of a BWWA.


Father flicker guarding the nest hole. No sign of the sneaky mother flicker.

Festival co-host Geoff Heeter, squire of Opossum Creek Retreat.

Festival attendee Marcy models the latest in birding rainwear.

The birding on the field trip to Muddlety was done in the fog and rain.

We saw no camera but we weren't going to litter anyway. In fact, we picked up trash.

Red eft loving the rainy weather much more than the birds and birders were.

Steve McCarthy, stalwart member of The Whipple Bird Club, and field trip leader at New River put Chet Baker to sleep with his petting.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Waiting for Warblers

Male pine warbler.


In the movie Jeremiah Johnson, the character Bear Claw Chris Lapp (played by The Waltons' grandpa Will Geer) says "Winter's a long time going. Stays long this high."

The old mountain dude was totally on the money with that one.

He could have just as easily been talking about this endless winter we're enjoying.

I am ready for warblers and spring. So far here at Indigo Hill, we've had exactly TWO warbler species in 2008. Yellow-rumped and pine. And it's April 15! No ovenbird yet. No Louisiana waterthrush. No palm warbler (but hey, our palm trees aren't fruiting yet).

Here are a few images of the (notice I said THE, as in the ONLY) pine warbler we've had so far. He stopped by, attracted by all the activity at the feeders, and helped himself to a few peanut bits, some sunflower hearts, and a few bill-fulls of suet dough.

Then he split for points north.

It's hard to be patient for spring's arrival—and it seems to get harder each year.


Male pine warbler checking out bark cracks and sapsucker holes in a birch trunk for insects.


Sneaking closer to the bird feeders.


Dispatching a sunflower heart. Pine warblers survive cold weather by sheer resourcefulness.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Meet Our Prairie Warbler

Our spring–summer resident prairie warbler got in early on Tuesday morning, after spending the winter in the Sunny Tropical Southland. He shouted out his glorious song, rising up the chromatic scale, from halfway out the meadow--the same place he held a territory last summer.

Zick and I sallied forth with our cameras hoping for a bit of luck. The words of our friend and master digiscoper Clay Taylor echoing in our heads: "Prairie warblers are the hardest songbird to photograph! I've NEVER gotten a good shot of one!"

The prairie warbler as we first saw him.

The western edge of our meadow is covered in the kind of brushy, scrubby stuff prairies love. It's got multiflora rose and sumac, saplings of several tree species, Japanese honeysuckle, and grape vines. And the middle-aged woods rise up behind this messy edge, tall tulip poplars, aspens, oaks, and maples, creating the perfect blend of buggy paradise, thick cover, and exceptional nesting and singing spots for songbirds.

A few minutes after tracking our singing male prairie, we found him about 25 feet high in a sumac/honeysuckle tangle. He sang as he foraged, seeming to ignore our movement closer to him as easily as he ignored our pishing.

Then, as if possessed by a magic spell, he came closer, then closer still. All the while he sang and foraged. And we went into full photo-monger mode. Our cameras clicked and beeped as we choked back our giggles at our good fortune.

Crouching prairie, hidden cloacal protuberance.

It lasted just a few minutes, then he was gone. But he'd given us a memorable show. We shared views of our images, high-fived a few times. Then I headed back to the house to work on a book project and Zick headed out to the orchard to continue to try her shutterbug luck.

Here are a few of my best shots from the morning. Check out Julie's blog for her excellent pix.

Spring is here, at long last.

Perhaps a bit curious about the clicking and beeping of our cameras.

Singing for all he's worth from an apple branch.

Prairie warbler badonkadonk. Dig the red neck! He fits right in here on the farm!

Is THIS his best side?

Or is THIS his best side? Or is it the badonkadonk?

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