Friday, May 08, 2009

The Swainson's Warbler Trip!

It's always a bit dodgy when you're asked to lead a birding festival field trip that is dedicated to finding one particular bird species. This is exacerbated by the following additional factors:

1. It's a rare bird, known for skulking in rhododendron thickets.
2. Lots of people sign up (and pay money for the privilege).
3. It's pouring rain.
4. It's the last day of the festival and everyone is COUNTING on seeing this bird.

And so it was last Saturday morning when my friend (and festival founder/raconteur) Geoff Heeter and I loaded 12 or so brave and eager souls onto a Ford Econoline van somewhere near the New River Gorge in West Virginia. This was the Swainson's Warbler Trip and it had but one target bird.

As we drove across WV 19 onto a country road that would take us to a spot that had at times hosted a Swainson's warbler, I was already drafting my apology for the trip participants in case we totally dipped out. The rain pounded on the van roof, pouring down like silver over the windshield, visibility nil.

"Well everyone, we tried our best. Some days you get the bird. Some days the bird gets you. Some days you feel like you've been flipped the bird. Sorry we missed it, but that's a great reason to come back next year!"

or this:

"Those Swainson's warblers are harder to find than a working microphone at a Milli Vanilli concert!"

or this:

"If I had a nickel for every time I've missed this bird, we'd be birding from a stretch limo instead of this rattletrap and eating caviar for lunch instead of flat meat."

Little did I know, I was wasting my time thinking up disappointment-softening excuses.

At our first stop Geoff and I heard two distant Swainson's singing along the creek in separate directions. Neither one was close enough to see or to lure in with a taped call. I decided to walk the group down to a nearby bridge while Geoff and Ned Keller got the vehicles.

From the bridge, one singing male sounded lots closer. Then he moved even closer, but was still out of sight in the thick rhodies, 30 yards upstream. I filled Geoff in about this new development and we motioned to the group to stay put while we carefully moved up the road for a better vantage point. Barely 150 feet farther along, I spotted the bird, teed up and singing against the trunk of a giant hemlock. Within seconds I had him in the spotting scope. Geoff beckoned our group forward and we all took turns drinking in this very rare sight. And the male Swainson's warbler sang and sang and preened and sang....

It felt SO great to show more than a dozen birders this cool and hard-to-find bird. It felt even better to locate a bird that was relaxed and singing from a favorite perch on its territory. No audio luring necessary! No trying to get bird watchers onto a het-up, moving bird. Just us, this beautiful male Swainson's warbler, some nice optics, and the rain, still falling down, but completely unnoticed.
Doing the Swainson's Warbler Life Bird Wiggle.

After we all got great looks I realized, in one of those I-could-kick-myself moments that I had ABSOLUTELY NO CAMERA WITH ME to take this bird's photo. No digiscoping rig. No 30D with a 300mm lens. Nope that stuff was warm and dry in the van. Hearing my remorseful cries, Geoff handed me his camera phone. I held it up to my Swarovski spotting scope and here's what I got!

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Zipline Birding in West Virginia

Our group was put through our paces in ground school before we took the first zipline.

What IS a zipline? A zipline, typically, is a set of metal cables stretched between two platforms, one higher, one lower along which a person rolls on pulleys, suspended from a set of safety harnesses. Many bird watchers have encountered ziplines in the tropics, where canopy walkways and towers often have this extra feature for those inclined to thrill seeking.

There's a new zipline near Fayetteville, West Virginia, on property owned by Class VI, a New River rafting and adventure company. A handful of the trip leaders from the New River Birding & Nature Festival were invited to sample the new zipline one afternoon during the festival. Called TreeTops Canopy Tours, the zipline operated by Class VI is an amazing experience. Our primary guide was none other than Tiny Elliott, former rafting guide and regular birding guide for the New River Birding & Nature Festival for many years.

We arrived at the patio of Smokey's on the Gorge, the main restaurant of Class VI, and were geared up in our harnesses by Tiny and Shaun, another TreeTops guide. From there we vanned over to the start of the canopy tour course for ground school. In ground school the guides instructed us in everything we'd need to know and do to have an enjoyable and safe zipline experience. Our harness pulleys were hooked up to the twin zipline cables and we took a short run between two tree stumps, just a few feet off the ground. We learned how to speed up and slow down while moving along the cables. We learned how to stop ourselves. And we learned how to self-rescue in case we got stranded in the middle of a zipline run. Self-rescuing was reasonably easy—you just lean back and pull yourself, hand over hand to the nearest zipline platform. We were required to demonstrate all of these capabilities and skills before we were allowed onto the main part of the course.

Perhaps most importantly, we were instructed how to minimize discomfort in our harnesses, which, when holding up our bodies, put large amounts of pressure in certain unusual places. The guides told everyone—males and females—to try to "keep all of your furniture in the same room" for reasons of comfort and health. Believe me, if some of your furniture sneaked into another room before you "zipped" you knew it and wanted to get it moved back right away.

Jim McCormac in safety gear.

The first zip was a short one and not very fast—down the hill into the river valley. When my turn came, I stepped onto the stump next to the lines to be hooked up. My heart was pounding and I admit to having some butterflies. After the initial moment of adrenaline, I was quickly overtaken by the feeling of how incredibly cool it was to be "flying" through the forest. I'd seen three of my large fellow "zippers" go down the line ahead of me, so I knew the lines would not break. Still, it's a bit disconcerting to have nothing below your feet but blurry hemlocks and oaks.

That's me, Bill of the Birds, in my Devo-approved safety helmet.

Tiny Elliott, our lead guide, was our ground school drillmaster. Hey Tiny: "Ta-Daaa!"

Geoff Heeter, not Bob the Builder. Leather gloves are needed for speed management while zipping. And for coolness.

After the second and third zips, we all got much more comfortable and started video-taping the runs of others from the platforms. We also noticed that we were high in the hemlocks, getting a true bird's-eye view of the landscape. I was amazed at the diversity of plantlife living on the top sides of the hemlock branches. No wonder these woods were so full of birds! This was not something I had ever noticed from the ground, looking up at warblers in these mountain forests.

Trusting my safety gear, high above the forest floor.

The course had been designed very sensitively to minimize impact on the forest, especially the native eastern hemlocks, which are being decimated by a non-native pest, the hemlock woolly adelgid. One of the goals of the owners and designers of this canopy tour zipline course is to keep the surrounding forest healthy. Thus, ziplines were plotted so as to minimize the removal of trees and branches. Platforms are built with minimum bolts or screws drilled into trees. Cables around trees are supported by block-stabilizers to protect the bark and trunk. An arborist will make regular inspections of the entire course to monitor the health of the trees being used. I was impressed at how much of the forest seemed untouched considering that the course was only just nearing completion.
The foliage was still thin enough on the trees that we could see several platforms on the course at once.

People on the ziplines are encouraged to have fun but discouraged from making lots of noise. Nothing will clear out the forest creatures faster, or diminish the natural beauty faster than a bunch of screaming thrill-seekers. Time will tell if this course will settle in as a feature of the landscape, or will become more like a ski-lift, with an alley of nature-free clearance for its riders.
Bird's-eye view of Mill Creek far below us. A Swainson's warbler was singing as I took this photo.

I felt a few screams of joy well up in my chest as I rode the zips. And on the platforms we encountered close-up songbirds, poking their ways through the tree tops. A female Blackburnian warbler passed within eight feet of us at one point, gathering nesting material. I was sorry that I was not allowed to bring binoculars along on this initial run. I missed easy looks at Swainson's warbler and northern parula from two different platforms. Tiny thinks compact binocs may be OK if they can be secured by a harness strap. Before we started this adventure we were encouraged to leave ALL valuables behind. Finding anything that fell off the zipline would be impossible.


Sky bridge across Mill Creek.

In the middle of the zipline course there are several rope and board bridges that we walked across to get to the next zip. They were surprisingly stable and gave us a chance to soak in the beauty of the forest and the plants and birds around us. We smelled the sweet flowers of a Fraser magnolia and heard the flat chip notes of a Swainson's warbler. It was a literal and spiritual high to be moving, as we were, through the top of the forest, looking down instead of up.

Prepping for the next-to-last zip.

Standing on the tree platform frame with Mill Creek 85 feet below.

As we neared the end of the tour, several of us got more daring, letting our harnesses and safety lines do their work as we leaned out over the edge of the wall-less tree platforms. I should stress again, that at no point during the tour were we not hooked by our safety lines to a secure anchor. It's nearly physically impossible to fall and our guides were particularly focused on keeping our group both safe and relaxed.
At each platform the guides kept us hooked up to the safety lines while we waited our turn to zip.

I could write about this zipline adventure for hours more, but think I'll share a couple of videos instead. These are two of my fellow "zippers", Geoff Heeter (one of the New River Birding & Nature Festival founders and owner of Opossum Creek Retreat where many of the festival events are held) and Jim McCormac of the Ohio Ornithological Society, whom some of you may know as the good-natured target of many of my online and offline jokes.

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I understand there are plans to try to incorporate a TreeTops Canopy Birding Tour into next year's New River Birding & Nature Festival. If that happens, I'll be the first in line to gear up and zip it!

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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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Monday, May 04, 2009

Rainy Days of Birding

A weather front followed me on my latest birding adventure.

From Tuesday night through Sunday morning last week I was in West Virginia at The New River Birding and Nature Festival. As I left for the festival, crossing the Ohio, West Virginia border, a large weather front appeared in the West, darkening the previously blue, sunshine-drenched sky. Apparently this weather front was also attending the New River Birding and Nature Festival because we both arrived at the same time and stayed for the rest of the week.

But what's a little weather among avid bird watchers? We laugh in the face of a driving rainstorm, as long as we can get somewhere sheltered to dry off our lenses, preferably somewhere with hot chocolate.

Intrepid birders at the bobolink field.

The birds were showing well despite the weather—the only miss being the golden-winged warbler, which we figured must have not yet returned from the tropics. The bobolinks at the bobolink field were already in, but the males were flying around in bachelor groups singing and perching in trees. Two days later they had staked out territories and were at war with each other. What a difference between their migratory behavior and their on-territory/breeding season behavior!

Every trip I lead for this year's NRBNF netted some lifers for one or more of my group. On some trips we had new birders along, or bird watchers from the West (for whom many eastern birds were new), and we cleaned up on life birds! One festival attendee netted 70 life birds! That's nothing to sneeze at!
Cloudy skies did not diminish the nice views. At least when the fog blew away.

There are at least 50 reasons why you should go to the New River Birding & Nature Festival. Twenty-five to 30 of those reasons could be warblers, because that's how many North American warbler species are seen annually at this event.
A singing male Kentucky warbler photographed on another, sunnier day of birding.

More on my New River adventures tomorrow. If you are starved to read more about this wonderful event right this very minute, check out some of the posts from the Flock of Bloggers that attended this year's festival, which included:

Mary from Mary’s View
Nina from Nature Remains
Kathie from Sycamore Canyon
Kathleen from A Glorious Life
Barb from My Bird Tales
Lynne from Hasty Brook

I met most of these fine folks during my six days in Fayetteville, WV. Also posting mightily about the event are Jeff Gordon (from whom I copped the list above), Jim McCormac, and Julie Zickefoose.

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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, April 08, 2009

Out There with the Birds

When we get a life bird on one of my field trip, I will force you (nicely) to do The Life Bird Wiggle.

I'll be attending, trip leading, speaking and performing at a couple of upcoming birding events here in the greater Ohio/West Virginia region.

The first is the North Coast Nature Festival held in Rocky River, Ohio, near Cleveland starting on Friday, April 24 through Sunday, April 26, 2009. I'm giving a Friday night talk, twice (The Perils & Pitfalls of Birding at 7 and 9 pm), a Saturday afternoon talk (No Child Left Inside: Birds as a Doorway to Nature), and morning bird walks on Saturday and Sunday.

The second event is one of my annual favorites: The New River Birding & Nature Festival held near the New River Gorge near Fayetteville, West Virginia. If you want to see 25 or more species of eastern wood warbler, The New River Birding & Nature Festival is THE event for you. It's set in the gorgeous Appalachian Mountains of south-central West Virginia and the festival atmosphere is friendly and laid-back.

We see male American redstarts on nearly every field trip at the New River Birding & Nature Festival in WV.

I'll be leading field trips at the New River fest from Wednesday, April 28 through Saturday, May 2. And on Saturday night the festival will end with a special performance by The Swinging Orangutangs at Opossum Creek Retreat.

I'm hoping I'll see you out there with the birds at one of these two fine birding events or at another one, farther on down the road. Until then....

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Bumps on a Log

Wood ducks, Williamstown Swamp, September 2008.


There's not much river-bottom wetland habitat left along the Ohio River, but one small piece that does still exist is in Williamstown, West Virginia. Locals call it The Williamstown Swamp and throughout the year it hosts some nice birds and wildlife. Last week I got a call that a glossy ibis was feeding in the duckweed-covered water of this swamp, so I took my lunch across the bridge from Marietta to check things out.

Glossy ibis, Williamstown Swamp, September 2008.

Sure enough, a young glossy ibis was there, feeding in the back corner of the swamp. We don't get too many ibises through this part of the world. My guess is that this bird was a post-breeding wanderer and it will likely head back south in the next day or so.

More interesting to me was the collection of 60 or more wood ducks loafing along the edge of the swamp and resting on a submerged log. The woodies were in various stages of molt—some still sporting the remnant summer feathers, some in partial eclipse plumage, and one or two males in their finest finery.

I'm really glad that this patch of bottomland swamp is still here for the birds (and people) to enjoy.
Wood ducks, Williamstown Swamp, September 2008.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Phoebe & The Young Birder's Guide

Phoebe with her copy of the Young Birder's Guide at the New River Birding Festival.


The thing I'm most proud of in my career as a bird content guy is the Young Birder's Guide which I wrote with the help of my daughter Phoebe's elementary school class. The book has gotten quite a bit of notice from the media and seems to be doing a good job connecting with its target audience (8- to 12-year-olds). Working with Phoebe and her schoolmates was the best.

Phoebs and I recently were interviewed by Mark Lynch, host of the excellent radio show Inquiry on public radio station WICN-FM in Boston. The interview is now available on WICN's website. To give us a listen, go here.

Clearly, during the interview, I talk way too much and Phoebe—not enough. Phoebster, next time I promise to give you more airtime, babe.

The "Inquiry" page on the WICN website.


Share the joy of birds with a young person with the YBG.


If you live anywhere near western Maryland, south-central Pennsylvania, or eastern West Virginia, and are looking for something birdy to do this weekend, come watch birds with us at The Berkeley Springs Fall Birding Festival. This is the first year of what is planned to be an annual event. I am leading a bird walk for kids on Saturday morning and giving my "Perils & Pitfalls of Birding" talk on Saturday night.

Hope to see you there (or somewhere) soon!

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

11 Seconds of Parula

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From near Glade Creek Road in Fayette County, West Virginia.

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