Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Bald Iggle

There are days when Inspirado is nowhere to be found.

There are days when I wonder where the heck this country and this planet are headed.

Today happens to be the confluence of these two types of day, so to honor this confluence, I give you a weird sign involving a bird. We've been down this road before, you and I.

Playing some music with the Orangutangs tonight will certainly serve to shake some monkeys out of the trees.

Peace, amigos y amigas.


Monday, January 30, 2006

Rock Wren in a Shrike's Larder

This interesting message and incredible photograph came in to Bill of the Birds from my friend Bill Clark (that's the Nevada/Arizona Bill Clark, not the South Texas/hawk expert Bill Clark).

Nevada Bill Clark writes:
I was completing a Nevada Bird Count transect near Laughlin along the Colorado River. Around stop 9, I observed this hatch-year rock wren moving through a large creosote. Both of us were "ambushed" by a loggerhead shrike. The shrike whizzed by me, choosing the smaller prey. I did not witness the kill, but I knew something was going on. As I headed to my next point I flushed the shrike and it flew off with the wren. I made a note of the shrike's landing site and returned about 15 minutes later, having completed my survey, to discover this "hanging tree." From the wear and the amount of dried blood on the branches, it was apparent this site had been used previously.

A recent thread on a bird listserv I subscribe to was about the carrying capacity of raptors. A general consensus was that a raptor could carry about 1/2 its own weight. The wren was about 1/3 the shrike's weight. But what really impresses me is what you discover when you compare wing spread to body length. More wing= more lift, right? A golden eagle has a 2.5 to 1 wing-to-body ratio. A loggerhead shrike has about a 1.3 to 1 wing-to-body ratio. This loggerhead shrike is one strong dude! He's got to work lots harder to fly, carrying his prey item to the larder.
Thanks for sharing this experience, Bill!

It would have been even more amazing if the shrike had been able to subdue you (instead of the rock wren) and then flew to the larder tree, carrying you in its bill.

Now THAT'S a nature documentary I'd pay to see!

The Unfrozen Band

Special thanks to Rondeau Ric for this piece of ape art.

I am pleased to announce the recent discovery of The Swinging Orangutangs. This band had been frozen in the polar ice cap for much of the past two years, but were found partially thawed in a free-floating ice floe by some Antarctic geologists.

The band has now been completely thawed out, reconstituted, and put through a battery of tests. The Swinging Orangutangs have been declared fit for public performance, and, what do you know, their first public performance is this coming weekend at The Marietta Brewing Company.
The Swinging Orangutangs, on a break from their wood-shedding practice, relaxing and rehydrating.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Driveway Oak

At the end of our driveway is a huge old oak tree. Who knows how old it is, but from all the scars and broken snags on it, you can tell it's been through a lot of winters, wind storms, and lightning strikes.

Yesterday afternoon I thought the old girl looked mighty pretty in the warm golden sunlight of a late afternoon. It'll be a sad day when she finally falls.

My father-in-law used to say that a tree spends 100 years growing, 100 years living, and 100 years dying. On our walk yesterday we found a recently fallen giant, brought down by the high winds we had here on Friday night. I won't still be here when it's all rotted back to the earth.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Our Holiday Letter

I am always amazed each year around Thanksgiving time, when the first holiday letter appears in our mailbox. Whoever sends these early letters (and you know who you are) not only has their act together sufficiently to write and send the things out, they also already know that nothing worth mentioning is going to happen in late November or during the entire month of December. So why not get those letters out there?

Now THAT'S organization.

Here on Indigo Hill, we take a more natural approach. Waiting until the spirit moves us before we actively ignore the need to compose our holiday letter. We're certainly not even thinking about it until we've gotten 15 or 20 such missives from friends, family, and various unmentionables during the December/January confluence.

Our effort usually goes like this.
Me: "Are we going to do a letter this year?"
Julie: "I don't know. Do we really want to?"
Liam: "Hey, Guys! Could somebody turn on SpongeBob for me?"

a few weeks later....

Julie: "Well, I wrote our letter today. Tell me what you think."
Me: "Honey this is very nice. I am sure everyone will love all the news about Chet Baker."
Julie: "Everybody LOVES Baker!"
Me: "We might want to work in a mention or two about your husband and your children."
Julie: "Do YOU want to write the letter this year?"

a few weeks later....

Me: "Happy Valentine's Day, Zick! Should we finish off those holiday letters?"
Julie: "Good thing we didn't specify WHICH holiday!"
Phoebe: "Hey Mr. and Mrs. Gutenberg, why don't you just send an e-mail letter out?"

And so we took the opportunity this afternoon to finish sending out the holiday letter. It was an astoundingly beautiful day here today. Almost 60 degrees F, sunny. We did the work outside, sitting at our picnic table in the front yard, squinting at the white paper in the bright sunshine. Writing notes, cramming letters and cards into envelopes. Placing American flag stamps crookedly on each one.

It was a fun way to spend the afternoon. And now we can get to work on the 2006/2007 letter. In fact, we've already started writing it...

Dear Friends:

It's been two weeks since our last holiday letter to you....

An Afternoon Walk

After a full day of work yesterday, Julie, Liam, Chet Baker, and I went on a long walk around our farm and onto our neighbors' land (80 beautiful acres owned by our friends Sherm and Beth).

We saw some amazing things, and although it was pretty cold, the sun kept our spirits high. Down in the creek bed, at the bottom of the valley, we visited the place we call Beechy Crash, where several old beech trunks have fallen into the bottom of the hollow. The trunks and the large sandstone boulders in this part of the creek are covered in bright green moss. I couldn't resist snapping several dozen images.Liam and his dad (The Hotdog Brothers) posing in Beechy Crash.

Farther down the creek, which empties into Goss' Fork (called "Gossy" by most local folks), we visited the amazing ice cave. This cave gives me the overwhelming feeling that people have lived or sheltered here in the past. Native Americans? Probably. Early settlers? Likely. Escaping slaves following the Underground Railroad route? Perhaps even more likely, since we know the route went right through our township. Until 1863, the state across the Ohio River from us, just 10 or so miles away, was Virginia, not West Virginia as it is now. And the Ohio River was considered a boundary between "slave" and "free" states.

I always expect to see flint arrowheads or even cave paintings in the ice cave, though I've never found either one. Chet explored the nooks and crannies while Liam broke off and tasted icicles. Jules and I just soaked up the moment inside the cave, and admired a perfect phoebe nest from last summer, built in the only part of the cave wall that a black snake could not get to.
Chet sniff the entrance to the ice cave.Inside the ice cave, looking out. The sunlight in the icicles was brilliant.

After a tough slog up the western hill, we found some serious pileated woodpecker workings. Our entire walk was accompanied by a soundtrack of pileated (and other woodpeckers') drumming and calling.
My shadow pointed out some pileated workings on an old rotted log.

We've been monitoring the pileateds' work on an old sassafras tree near our southern fenceline. One male pileated was drumming so loudly and sharply that it sounded just like a machine gun being fired. He's found himself a really resonate drumming site. We can hear him for a mile.
This pileated woodpecker has been busy. They seem to love sassafras. Does it have more carpenter ants?
Zick insisted on sticking her hand in the cavity. Note the sassafras twig she's gnawing on.
Liam was sure there was a bird hiding in there.

Hawk-Owl Hullaballoo

Once every few years, a northern hawk-owl shows up in the Northeast. This causes the expected stampede of birders and bird photographers. Wherever the bird appears regularly, the locals and landowners are forced to deal with obsessed birders, some of whom may have come from very far away in hopes of seeing this rarity from the northern woods.

And, we birders are willing to go to some extreme lengths to try to see a rare bird. This is why many of the hawk-owl chasers near Lydonville, New York have been showing up with pet store mice to use as bait for the hawk-owl. Now a pet store mouse, released on the snow in front of a hungry hawk-owl does not stand much of a chance. But, there are times when the owl does not catch, kill, and consume these heartfelt offerings from eager birders. And the local resident humans want to know WHERE ARE THESE ESCAPED MICE GOING? ARE THEY INVADING OUR HOMES?

"Hide the cheese, Mother, those bird watchers is back trying to feed our owl!"

Read this piece in The Houston Chronicle for the whole absurd story.

Friday, January 27, 2006

The Home Office

This week I've been working at home where it's easier to write. Most mornings find me up in the birding tower where, when I glance up from my labors, I can survey our farm and the surrounding habitat.

Two weeks ago, I put in a wireless network so now, with my laptop, I can write, answer e-mails, update "Bill of the Birds" and generally be productive from anywhere in the house, including our tower.

Yesterday I saw two red-tailed hawks, a red-shouldered, a big female Cooper's hawk, and a courting pair of pileated woodpeckers--all birds that I would have missed if I had not been working in the tower.

Here's the view from the home office.

This eastern bluebird comes to the adjacent part of our house roof when I'm in the tower to let me know that the suet dough feeder is empty.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Back in School

I visited Phoebe's 4th Grade class today to give a short presentation on the publishing business.

We had a little friendly wager, the class and I. I thought there was no way they could name 20 species of birds, giving the actual names. In other words, "sparrow" did not cut it. But field sparrow counts.

If they got 20 bird names right, I told them I'd put their picture on Bill of the Birds and take them all birding this spring on our farm. If they lost, they'd get another hour of me talking to them about publishing, WITH NO NAP TIME OR BATHROOM BREAKS!

With a little help from bird-brainiac Phoebe (who was supposed to be disqualified)the class scored 21 bird species, properly named.

So, since it was part of the deal, here's the class' photo. Look at those smug smiles!

Feeder Elf

We have an elf, a kindly woodland sprite, that comes and fills our bird feeders each evening at dusk. We rarely see this Puck-like creature, who visits in the gloaming to make sure that our birds wake up to feeders full of tasty good things to eat. And to make sure that we wake up to feeders teeming with birds.

Tonight I left my digital camera trained on our feeding station, rigged with a sensor to record any movement. These are the amazing images I captured.

As you can see from the body language and the headgear, this is clearly an elf, probably from one of the Appalachian species of sprites partial to mixed deciduous woods. The camera recorded no sound, but our kids, who witnessed this visitation from the studio windows, distinctly remember hearing the elf singing two complete verses of "Take It Easy" by Jackson Browne. If that doesn't cinch the ID I don't know what will.

Perhaps if I put a team together and comb the woods for the next 12 months I might find a nest or roost cavity.

Or maybe it's best to let this chimera live on in our imaginations? After all, I LIKE having my feeders filled up each evening.

O blasted conundrum.

Got Cardinals?

This morning, while reading book copy in the uppermost indoor level of our birding tower, I spied this conflagration of cardinals.

To some this may look like quite a gathering of male northern cardinals. But let me assure you that the record for winter cardinal numbers at one time at our feeders is 72 birds. This gathering today is nowhere near the numbers we get when it's really cold and snowy.

Still, I thought this image of cardinals in our winter trumpetvine tangle, was quite pleasing to the eye.

Bank Swallows Gone Wild!

My friend Myrna Pearman from Alberta sent along this incredible story and photo from a birding experience she had last summer on the way home from work. First of all, here's the photograph:
I'll let Myrna set the stage:
I saw what appeared to be bizarre bird behaviour last night while driving home from Ellis Bird Farm. There is a section of road along Twnship Road 40-0 with wetlands on both sides of the road. Last evening, dozens and dozens of bank swallows were feeding over these wetlands as well as over a nearby cultivated field. One had been recently killed, likely hit by a passing car. What caught my eye as I drove by was the frenzy of birds copulating with this dead bird. There were up to 7 at a time trying to mate with the corpse, and the sight of one mating seemed to stir the others so much that they actually tried to copulate with the copulator(s)!!! The corpse got flipped around on both its back and stomach, but both positions seemed irresistible. I took quite a few photos, some of which turned out to be fairly clear (it was about 8:30 pm and very overcast, so the lighting was lousy). Perhaps this is well-known behaviour and I ve just never heard of it before.

Myrna sent her observation along to several ornithologists and biologists in Canada, and one, sent her this reply:
Dear Ms. Pearman:
The behaviour you described, known in the literature as Davian behavior, has been recorded previously in birds, but infrequently. To my knowledge, however, the contexts in which this behaviour occurs has not been determined, that is, what the relationships, if any, were between the participating individuals, what were the ages of the birds involved, and so on. That there were so many individual bank swallows copulating or appearing to copulate with the corpse suggests no relationship among the individuals and whether true copulation occurred, with a transfer of sperm, cannot be confirmed. As the breeding season of bank swallows may be over for this year, the behaviour is even more puzzling. Is it possible that at least some the individuals involved were juveniles?

I have witnessed this behaviour once, involving silvery-throated jays in a Costa Rican cloud forest. The freshly dead bird on the ground (cause of death not determined although the bird, an egg-laying female, was skinned out and no visible wounds were detected) was being mounted by two unsexed individuals.

You may want to consider preparing a written account of your observation for the Blue Jay or Alberta Naturalist, accompanied by your photograph. Keep the bird in the freezer as its status, i.e., sex and age, would be important to know.

I appreciate receiving the highlights of your observation. All the best with your work.

Birders and ornithologists always talk about how anyone can make a contribution to our knowledge of birds, through citizen science projects, through organized research projects and field work. But we can also make contributions simply by sharing our observations of bird behavior, like this rather unusual one that Myrna witnessed.

Myrna is one of North America's leading experts on bluebirds and a longtime member of The North American Bluebird Society. She works at The Ellis Bird Farm near Red Deer, Alberta, where the mission is to help conserve birds (especially mountain bluebirds and violet-green swallows), to do field research, and to help to educate the public about birds and nature.

Thanks, Myrna, for sharing this with me (and with the readers of Bill of the Birds). I believe I speak for all of us when I say that we'll never look at bank swallows quite the same again....

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Mad Titmouse

This little dude HATES it when we watch him eat his breakfast.
That's Zick's suet dough and our birds love it.
As she says "It's the LARD that makes it HARD (to resist)."

Customers for our crack ....uh.... suet dough, include:
tufted titmouse (pictured), Carolina chickadee, northern cardinal, eastern towhee (the towhee formerly known as rufous-sided), song sparrow, tree sparrow, field sparrow, Carolina wren, red-bellied woodpecker, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, white-breasted nuthatch, northern mockingbird, brown thrasher (in summer), gray catbird (in summer), eastern bluebird, blue jay, dark-eyed junco, house sparrow (yecch), and European starling (yecch).

Need the recipe? Here you go.

Me & My Shadow

I've been working at home a lot lately, writing and editing, mostly. In the early mornings, before the rest of the house is awake, I've been taking walks to the far, infrequently visited corners of our 80 acres. I've noticed that my shadow has been following me in a very odd way--almost like a detective "tailing" a suspect.

Yesterday, I caught a glimpse of my shadow as he passed in front of a sizable oak on the southeast corner of our land. I'd been sitting on top of the hill, on the moss-covered girth of a fallen maple trunk, copy-editing some text and just contemplating. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my shadow watching me.

A pair of pileated woodpeckers laughed maniacally to each other from opposite sides of our beech grove. This distracted me momentarily and, when I looked for him again, my shadow was gone.

I caught sight of him a few more times as I walked up the brambly hillside, across the gushing draw, along the township road, and down our drive. But I didn't let on that I saw him.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Dawn on the Farm

This is dawn this morning from the birding tower on our farm. Today is very cold and windy, but spring is in the air, and she can't hide herself forever.

Loving Technology

I've been trying all morning to upload a new blog. Blogger is not working for some reason. Or it could be my mad blogging skillz have deserted me.

This can mean only one thing. It's time to eat lunch. Care to join me? We're having suet dough, just like the bluebirds.

A MoDo Sandwich

In 1998, Ohio citizens went to the polls and voted to legalize the hunting of mourning doves. Last year, according to the Ohio DNR website, 50,000 hunters took 300,000 mourning doves.

I am not anti-hunting. But hunting mourning doves seems to me to be more about having something challenging to shoot on the wing, than it does about putting food on the table. Once you clean a mourning dove, removing all the feathers, bones, and other inedibles, you are left with a very small piece of breast meat (that may still have some shot pellets in it.) According to one estimate, one modo yields about half a hotdog's worth of meat. It's a lot of work for not much food. To feed a family of four (at two wieners per), a hunter would have to bag at least 16 mourning doves. For a look back at the 1998 debate about the dove-hunting issue here in Ohio, see Julie Zickefoose's excellent article. And while you're at it, visit her compelling blog.

Do you know any terms of venery? A paddle of ducks, a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks, an ostentation of peacocks, and so on? Gazing out into our yard this morning, I spied, under our pine trees, eating our cracked corn, a sandwich of mourning doves.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Ivorybills, Water, Lawsuits....

Here's a news item appearing on the MSNBC website about the role the ivory-billed woodpecker may play in halting a huge irrigation project in Arkansas. What a gift for environmental groups opposing this project to have the bird story of the century fall right in their laps!

Thanks to Debbie and David Griffith for passing this along.

America's Birdiest City/County

This just in, from Phil Pryde of San Diego Audubon. This is a very clever, enjoyable, and increasingly popular birding competition. Check it out!

2006 America's Birdiest City/County competition

The 6th annual America's Birdiest City and Birdiest County contests will conducted once again in April and May of 2006.

The objectives of the "America's Birdiest City/County" contest are quite simple: to see which cities and counties in the various categories can document the highest count of bird species during a selected 72-hour period within its city (or county) limits during the month of April or May.

Because cities and counties come in greatly different sizes, and because some parts of the country (such as coastlines) have inherently more species of birds than others, there are 9 categories in the competition. They, and the 2005 winners, are:
Large Coastal City Corpus Christi, TX
Large Inland City Chicago, IL
Small Coastal City Dauphin Island, AL
Small Inland City Duluth, MN
Inland Eastern County St. Louis County, MN
Inland Western County Kern County, CA
Coastal Gulf Coast County Nueces County, TX
Coastal Atlantic County Kings County, NY
Coastal Pacific County Monterey and San Diego, CA

Cities and counties of all sizes are invited to join the competition in 2006.

The key to success is having lots of birders in the field-- there's no limit on the number of participants. Combining the event with a fund-raising birdathon is often a good route to success. And you pick your own optimum dates.

To participate, just send an e-mail to the address below, and indicate whether you wish to enter one of the City contests, one of the County contests, or both. You'll receive the complete rules of the competition by return e-mail.

It's fine to decide at the last minute if you want to participate; there's no "sign up" deadline. However, you should enter early enough to get organized, and do send an e-mail requesting a copy of the competition rules.

The ABC/C competition is primarily a fun event, but it’s also a good educational and public relations event as well. Start making plans to field your city or county’s team now! For more information, contact:
Phil Pryde, San Diego Audubon Society, ABC/C coordinator
e-mail: [email protected]

Make It Through Sundays

There's a great Lucinda Williams song, called "Sundays" that so often seems appropriate on our gray winter days. As a kid I really disliked Sundays. Monday and school followed inevitably and that was a bummer. This has diminished slightly as I've grown older, but Lucinda's song still strikes a familiar feeling for me.
I can't seem to make it through Sunday
I can't seem to make it through Sunday
Monday through Saturday I get by just fine,
Every other day of the week, I feel all right.
But I don't know why, I don't know why....
I can't seem to make it through Sunday.

Yesterday was a Sunday that broke the pattern, however. Glorious sunshine in the morning, and even though it was cold, the birds were singing, including the male in our side-yard pair of bluebirds. Mr. Blue sang and waved his wings while his mate ducked in and out of our side-yard bluebird house. No word on whether he got lucky later.

Heading into the Blennerhassett Hotel for my Sunday gig, I hear a very randy mourning dove calling from the top of the Parkersburg courthouse annex. The natural reverb between the large buildings on this quiet street really augmented his song, and I wondered if he chose this spot for its acoustics. He certainly didn't choose it for its natural habitat--there's very little.
The Sunday morning mourning dove sounded great singing from his terra cotta stage.
I think this mourning dove uses this perch frequently.

Back home in the afternoon it was practice time for The Swinging Orangutangs. Visit Julie's funny blog about our practice for the straight dope. Man, it felt great to play with the full band again. So good, in fact, that I completely forgot to take any pix to share with you here, until practice was over and we were in Orangutangs' Afterglow. So here are a few apres-prakky pix.Julie and Steve, basking in the glow of another righteous O'Tang Clan practice.

Vinnie, smashing up Steve's drums after our Sunday afternoon practice. Hope his parole officer does not find out.

We ran over about 15 songs from our existing repertoire, chiseling off the rust from our hands and voices (our last gig was back in October) and learned three new tunes. One was "Lick Your Boots" by Eels, a quirky, spacy song. Another was an original composition by Andy called "My Baby's Like an ATM." Jade, I'm sure he is not referring to you in this song--it's not about anyone specific.

And finally, the band helped me flesh out a bridge for my latest effort, called "Trying to Forget You." It's the first slow tempo song I've written in a long time. This line-up of our band is very cohesive, so it's a good place to ask for advice on lyrics and chord changes. Vinnie, who is playing bass with us, suggested an E-flat chord that really fit nicely. The song is sad, but pretty, and as the band played through it a final time, I realized how lucky I am to have music in my life, and good friends and family with whom to play it.

It makes it easier to make it through Sundays. And through life in general.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Adventures in Music

As Dad, Chet, and I were setting up for our gig this afternoon, Chet (who booked the job) casually let this slip.

"Hey do you guys know "Margaritaville?" The guy who hired us wants us to play it."

Now I knew a little bit about this gig. It was for a very nice man's 90th birthday party in a swank banquet room of a restaurant. The birthday man's son had hired us after hearing us last fall. Everything was going along just fine until Chet dropped his bomb.

"Chet, why did you just say that?" I asked, picking myself up off the floor and dusting myself off.

"It's not a big deal, but the birthday guy likes margaritas, so his son asked if we could play "Margaritaville" when he arrives." Chet replied, like it was the most normal thing in the world.

I once took a blood oath that, in order to preserve a microscopic shred of musical dignity, I would never again play certain songs. On that list of forbidden music, "Margaritaville" is #1 with a bullet. Adding to this horror show is the undeniable fact that "Margaritaville" is a guitar song. We are a jazz trio consisting of piano, bass, and drums.

But we're professionals, so, after panicking and screaming for a few minutes, my dad and I sat down at the piano so I could teach him the song. He professed to never having heard it. Lucky man. My dad is a master musician, but I quickly deduced that, in spite of the fact that the song only has three chords in it, our version of it was not going to happen without some sort of sheet music.

So I jumped in the Birdmobile and headed down the road a couple of miles to CA House Music, thinking I could surely find a sheet music book there with the songs of Jimmy Buffett, a man who has made millions of dollars singing songs about parrots, rum, and lost shakers of salt.No dice. I blew out my flip-flop trying to find the song in the store's psychotically organized sheet music sections (there were five different places in the store with sheet music on display). If I'd been desperate for any song from the 1890s, no problemo.

Big Manhattan Transfer gig coming up? We got your music right here, Sparky. But this was a Buffett-free zone as far as sheet music was concerned.
Just when I was about to give up hope, I spied Bill, a drummer I'd worked with last year. He works at CA House. I told him of my predicament. He sympathized, knowing that I was in a real pickle. "Man, I once had to chase down the chords to "Una Paloma Blanca" for a VFW gig on a Sunday afternoon in Keokuk," he said, shaking his head.

Bill summoned the computer guy for the store who, with a bit of coaching from me, was able to get online and find the chords and words to "Margaritaville." He printed it out and placed it in my sweaty hands. I raced back to the party, arriving just in time to transpose the key from D to C (better for piano) and scribble a few notes on the sheet.

Enter the birthday man. The crowd cheers. He is handed a Margarita. We begin that cheesy riff--ba-ba-baba-ba, ba-ba-baba-ba--that sends parrotheads into rapture....I lean into the microphone, and say a silent prayer to St. Jaco, patron saint of bass players.

The rest is a blur.
I can now say on my resume that I have serenaded a 90-year-old man with "Margaritaville." How many people can say THAT?

And you know what? We didn't sound too bad doing it.

Oh, and on the way home, we saw two red-tailed hawks perched close to each other in a huge oak tree. I took this as a sign that I should never again sing "Margaritaville."

Music Weekend

The Swinging Orangutangs rock the house at The Blennerhassett Hotel last fall.

Lots of music on the docket for this weekend. First is a jazz gig Saturday afternoon with my dad and drummer Chet Backus for a birthday party in Parkersburg, WV. Then my regular Sunday jazz brunch gig at The Blennerhassett Hotel.

Then a knock-the-rust-off practice for The Swinging Orangutangs at our farm on Sunday afternoon. The O-Tang Clan has a gig on Saturday, February 4, at The Marietta Brewing Company, and to avoid being arrested for aural assault, we're honing our mad skillz well in advance.

This show will feature our buddy Vinnie Mele on bass and vocals. The rest of the band is the ususal suspects: Julie Zickefoose on vocals, flute, and percussion. Andy Thompson on rhythm guitar, piano, vocals, percussion, and City Council At Large. Steve "Charlie" McCarthy on drums. And me, BT3 on lead guitar and vocals.

We'll be learning some new material, including a song I just wrote, called "Trying to Forget You." We also do original songs by Andy, and we cover a lot of material from other bands, including, but not limited to, The B-52s, Eels, Wilco, Mr, Neil Young, Santana (before he went all Rob Thomas on us), The English Beat, The Cure, Ween, and The Violent Femmes. We can also whip out some jazz standards, classic country, or rock if the situation calls for it. Here's a little-known fact for the "VH1 Behind the Music" folks: Someone once paid us $100 to play "Take Me Home Country Roads."

Our motto is, and always will be: "The more you drink, the better we sound."

Music makes the world go 'round.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Two Whales Tales

Perhaps the most intelligent mammal ever to visit Parliament.

How often do you get two interesting whale stories in one day? Well, today was one of those two-whale days.

First, here's the story of the northern bottlenose whale that decided to visit London, so it swam up the Thames River. Thanks to David Griffith for the news tip.

Next, here's a spoof news item, called Seismic surveys from Down Under about a whale that "died of old age." Not that THAT'S funny, mind you. Just an interesting story. Thanks to John Acorn for sending this one to me.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Afternoon Delight

Let's check in with the Bill of the Birds Weather SkyCam®:
"Nothin' but blue skies, from now on!"

What a gift today's weather is. It's sunny, unseasonably warm, and mostly still. Sort of one of those days that's creepy because you KNOW it's trying to lure you outside in your cut-offs, flip-flops, and doo-rag to throw frisbee and crank the Allman Brothers out the window.

Sadly, I am inside today, held there by the production deadline for the next issue of our magazine. But there is hope in Birdville. Beautiful day + lunch hour + binocs = 60 minute birding adventure.

After securing a sandwich and soup at a local purveyor of foodlike products, I went to The Kroger Wetland, just down Acme Street from BWD. This wetland is a remnant patch of Ohio River bottomland swamp nestled between I-77, several chain motels, and (you guessed it) a Kroger supermarket. This local Kroger donated the land to the City of Marietta and local volunteers, city workers, and various clubs have worked together to clean up the trash and make the wetlands accessible to visitors. Trails have been cut and wood-chips laid down. Footbridges have been built over perpetually wet spots, and most recently, an observation deck and well-placed benches have been added along the trail.
Boy scouts and local volunteers have built footbridges and benches around the wetland's paths.

This little patch of nature is very attractive to waterfowl, waders, and shorebirds year-round, but spring and fall migrations are the prime birding times. I did not expect much today at the wetlands. I really just wanted to get out for an hour to enjoy the air, sun, and the pleasing feeling that spring may actually return soon.

Even in the middle of the Kroger Wetland you do not escape the fact that you are surrounded by civilization. The whine of traffic on the interstate, the smell of grease from the fast-food joints, and the other visual and aural signs of humanity are omnipresent. Still, it's a thrill to hear the first spring peeper from the bogs, as I did today. And you never know what birds will be present.
Vernal pools like this one surround the Kroger Wetland, and are the home of the now-awakening spring peepers.

I feel a special kinship with this place, not only because it's the nearest decent birding spot to my office at BWD, but because the land along one edge of the Kroger Wetland once belonged to my great-grandfather. When I-77 came through on the edge of Marietta in 1964, it barreled right through the living room of the farm house where my dad's side of the family had lived and farmed for many years. There was no choice in the matter. While some of our city's leaders felt that the interstate "put Marietta on the map" from today's perspective it seems to have mostly made Marietta a good place to get gas, a Big Mac, and get right back on the interstate. But I digress....

I found a sunny spot and one of the new benches along the west side of the wetland and settled down for lunch and some quiet reflection time. With all the ways we humans stay in touch with each other these days, I find it restorative and utterly refreshing to go somewhere for a few minutes or a few hours, where nobody can reach me. Sometimes I'll even find myself smiling when I realize that no one know where I am right now! I keep this within reason, of course....
The mallards are already pairing off, further proof that spring is in the air.

Some of today's highlights at the Kroger Wetlands included several gaggles of mallards, perhaps nearly 20 birds in all. A rattling belted kingfisher flying from snag to snag. He kept this up so long that I began to suspect that he was laughing at me. And a lone spring peeper gave a few peeps from one of the vernal pools along the wetland's jagged, messy edge.
The view of the wetlands from a knoll, looking eastward.

It won't be long before the red-shouldered hawk is kee-yah-ing overhead. He nests here every summer. The wheeeeep-wheeep of wood ducks is just a few weeks away, too. And the liquid music of the tree swallows will once again fill our ears as soon as the midges and danceflies are hatching in late-March.Beaver sign is everywhere in the Kroger Wetlands. Wally sign, not so much.

It was a delightful way to break up my day. And as I squished up the path to the parking lot, I was thankful to have a little bit of green space so handy and accessible.

I hope you're getting outside today, too. Winter is not defeated yet and she's sure to return with great, frigid fury to remind us that spring's first day is still two months distant.
My shadow followed me to the wetlands and waved to me as I departed.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Footage of Carolina Parakeets

One of the things I love about my job as editor of Bird Watcher's Digest is that I never know what the next phone call or e-mail will be about. Yesterday I got an e-mail and phone call from a young woman from a California advertising agency. "I've got some footage of Carolina parakeets that will be appearing in The New World, a film opening this Friday!"

Naturally, my interest was piqued.

The New World tells the story of the initial encounter between Europeans and Native Americans during the establishment of the Jamestown (Virginia) settlement in 1607. It's also the story of the relationship between John Smith, part of that first band of Europeans, and Pocahontas, a young Native American woman living with her people near what would become Jamestown.
"Excuse me, my good man. Is this Jamestown?"

Or, if you prefer to get your information directly from press releases, here's what Tasha, from the ad agency sent me:
"The New World, opening in theaters nationwide January 20th, is an epic adventure set amid the encounter of European and Native American cultures during the founding of the Jamestown settlement in 1607. Inspired by the legend of John Smith and Pocahontas, acclaimed filmmaker TERRENCE MALICK transforms this classic story into a sweeping exploration of love, loss and discovery, both a celebration and an elegy of the America that was…and the America that was yet to come.

Against the dramatic and historically rich backdrop of a pristine Eden inhabited by a great native civilization, Malick has set a dramatized tale of two strong-willed characters, a passionate and noble young native woman and an ambitious soldier of fortune who find themselves torn between the undeniable requirements of civic duty and the inescapable demands of the heart.

In the early years of the 17th century, North America is much as it has been for the previous five thousand years—a vast land of seemingly endless primeval wilderness populated by an intricate network of tribal cultures. Although these nations live in graceful harmony with their environment, their relations with each other are a bit more uneasy. All it will take to upset the balance is an intrusion from the outside. One is not long in coming."
Chief Powhatan and his people were welcoming to the strangers from across the sea, up to a point.
So how do parakeets fit into all of this?

A digitally created pair of Carolina parakeets has a nine-second appearance in one of the scenes between John Smith (played hirsutely by Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (played by the beautiful and unknown-til-now Q'Orianka Kilcher). Oh, and the movie also features one of my favorite actors, Wes Studi, as a warrior. You might remember him as Magua from Last of the Mohicans.

Turns out, the movie's writer/director, Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) is a bird watcher himself and thought BWD and other media outlets might be interested in the digital recreation of an extinct bird species. Well, he was right!

The amount of time we see the parakeets is fleetingly short, but it's still pretty amazing to see, and to imagine what the living birds must have been like.

View the clip of the Carolina parakeets from The New World at your chosen size and bandwidth.
Quicktime, small.
Quicktime, large.
Windows, small.
Windows, large.

The movie's official site is here.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology provided audio files of natural sounds and creatures for the film. And although no sound recordings exist of the Carolina parakeet, that did not stop the lab from creating one. Here's the press release from Cornell:
"What would a Carolina parakeet sound like?" This was a difficult question because the species has been extinct since the 1920's. However, in 1607 Virginia, the parrot would have been one of the more colorful and noisy inhabitants of Pocahontas' world, and it was important to director Terrence Malick that the sounds of THE NEW WORLD be as historically accurate as the costumes and sets.

To this purpose, the production contacted the Macaulay Library at Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology which houses the largest collection of animal sounds in the world, with more than 160,000 recordings, including 67 percent of the world's birds.

Curator of Audio Greg Budney took on the challenge of finding a Carolina parakeet stand-in. Although no recordings of the parrot exist, based on body size and beak shape, Greg determined that the song of the Aratinga mitrata or mitred parakeet would be a good approximation.

In the end, the Library provided cues for over 75 species of birds, frogs, insects and mammals that were appropriate for the time and place of the story, adding a rich layer of auditory detail to the sound mix of THE NEW WORLD.
The Lab of O did not have anything to do with the digital recreation of the parakeets. That was the work of a digital artist who used this well-known painting by John James Audubon as reference.

Bill of the Birds readers might also enjoy Julie Zickefoose's painting of this stunning species.

If you go to see The New World (remember it opens nationwide this Friday, January 20) take along your binoculars and try to catch a glimpse of the parakeets. Then, on Saturday, when you're out birding with your friends, you can say, "Yep, the LAST bird I focused these babies on was a Carolina parakeet!"

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Hawk Flips the Bird

I can understand that this young red-shouldered hawk was very unhappy about getting his photograph taken by Florida birder Betsy Franz. However, I think it was totally inappropriate of the bird to flip the bird. That's just not right.
According to Betsy, this bird, a juvenile red-shouldered hawk, likely came from a large nest near her backyard. Betsy is the author of Wildlife Habitat Journal: Restoring and Exploring Wildlife Habitat in Your Own Backyard. To see more of Betsy's images visit her photo website.


If you have a pet parrot, be careful what you say around it. Why?
Here's why!

It's well known that African grays are smart cookies. Remember the amazing cognitive abilities displayed by Alex, the African gray trained by and closely studied by Dr. Irene Pepperberg? Alex demonstrated that he could even read minds.

There's a lot going on with animal intelligence that we humans have no clue about.

The biggest bird in our house is Charles, our chestnut-fronted macaw. He believes that Julie is his mate and that I am just the live-in handyman. Charles might be a little paranoid about his offspring because Phoebe and Liam look a lot more like me than they look like him.
Charles, our chestnut-fronted macaw. Photo by his mate, Julie Zickefoose.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Weird Signage, Continued

My OOS pals, Cheryl Harner and Su Snyder sent me this amazing image today, with the following message:

hi Bill: Cheryl Harner and I were driving back from a birding trip at Lake Erie today when we saw this truck and thought of you (or rather we thought about your interest in weird signs). Anyway I suggested to Cheryl that she take this photo for you. Do you think they put that sign there to discourage the undead? Enjoy. Su

Heading Home, At Last

We're up early packing for the long drive home from Atlanta. It's been a fun weekend at BirdWatch America, but we're all anxious to get home.

Last night we had our annual dinner with our Atlanta cousins, the Bagheris. Carolyn Bagheri is my mom's second cousin--both their fathers were Ekenstiernas (Harvey and Axel) right off the boat from Sweden. Carolyn and her husband Teher, and their grandson, Michael, treated us to a wonderful meal at Fogo de Chao. Fogo is a Brazilian churrascaria where the meat is cooked over an open fire and served to you by gauchos (the Brazilian version of a cowboy), cutting the meat off giant spits right onto your plate. You have a little drink-coaster-like card, green on one side, red on the other, that you use to indicate your willingness to be visited by the meat-wielding gauchos. And the meat is fantastic--it makes you pity your vegetarian friends.
Michael gets a visit from the Meat Fairy.

One word of warning. If you go to Fogo de Chao, take it easy on the amazing salad bar lest you fill yourself up with greenery, leaving less room for the lamb, chicken, beef, and pork. And leaving almost no room for the incredible desserts. We had six different desserts and passed them in a circle around the table so everyone got a taste.
Key lime pie and flan. Neither one stood a chance against our forks.

It's always a great meal with the cousins, with lots of laughs and much jocularity.
Cousin Carolyn Bagheri and Elsa "Catbird" Thompson, smiling for the cute gauchos.

Now you must excuse me. The road home is calling.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

BirdWatch America

BWD publisher Andy Thompson makes a sale in the BWD booth.

Another BirdWatch America Show is finished. BWD and the Thompsons have attended every one of the BWA shows for the past 14 years, and at this point it's more like going to your high school reunion than going to a trade show. Some of the folks we see here are great friends, almost like family. And we always meet lots of people new to the wild bird business.

We made a decent number of sales, but we did a world-class amount of schmoozing.
We were pitching our content creation skills at BirdWatch America.
Lisa White, our editor from Houghton Mifflin, is a multi-tasker. She worked the phones AND the booth at BirdWatch America.

Quote for a Busy Day

An old friend sent me an e-mail today. At the bottom was this quote and I thought I'd share it here.

"The essential sadness is to go through life without loving.
But it would be almost equally sad to go through life and leave this world without ever telling those you loved that you had loved them."

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Great Hair Signs

I absolutely could not resist these signs from an Atlanta wig shop. In fact I found them so compelling that I got my own human hair wig--it's WAY more real than syntetic hair.

Marching on Atlanta

We drove both BWD vans south to Atlanta for the BirdWatch America Show, making it just in time to get set up, then cleaned up (no small task) for the opening reception. This show is a trade show for the wild bird business, rather than a consumer show. So we're selling our wares and services to bird and nature stores and distributors.

We've been to this show every year it has been held, so at this point, it's sort of like going to a family reunion.
Amy Hooper, Jeff Bouton, Mike Frieberg, Elsa Thompson, Alicia Craig schmoozing at BirdWatch America

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Welcome Home Mr. Martin Backpacker!

Mr. Martin Backpacker, my mini guitar/kayak paddle was reunited with his heartbroken owner (me) today. For those of you who are not familiar with the back story, here, I shut my Martin Backpacker guitar in my van's sliding door and chopped its little head off.

Well, I am here to say that miracles do happen, people.

For just under $40, Mr. Martin's head was glued back in place. I have not tuned him up and played him yet, but will do so tonight. He needs some new strings and a bit of loving care, but, he's his old whole self again!

Special thanks to David Martin (no relation) of Third Street Music in Marietta, OH for arranging for Mr. Martin Backpacker's rehabilitation.

Mr. Martin Backpacker once again has his head about him.

You can hardly tell that Mr. Martin Backpacker was abused by his owner.

Third Street Music was "instrumental" in Mr. Martin Backpacker's repair

When Raptors Ruled the Earth

Hey kids! Let's go back in time, oh, about 2 million years ought to do it... to a time when humans were less "evolved" than we are today. Back when you had more to worry about than your cell phone coverage, how many carbs in that baked potato, and how Dale, Jr. finished at Talladega (OK, bad example). In that time in prehistory, when you painted your blog on the wall of your cave, you also had to worry that you might get killed and consumed by a large raptor.

The Associated Press reports today that recent findings by a South African anthropologist confirm that the smallest prehistoric people of 2 million years ago may have been preyed upon by large raptors--the same birds that were preying upon monkeys. These birds still roam the earth today in the form of the large African eagle species.

Fascinating stuff, this. Check out the full story.

Special thanks to David and Deborah Griffith for the heads -up on this item.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

My Favorite Shoes

Warning: I am about to gush about a commercial product.

It's the pair of Keen shoes that I got from Julie for Christmas. They are the Ouray style (color: Moonrock), an all-weather version of the Keen sandals I scored last June in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and that I wore almost constantly until it got cold and snowy.

I have long feet with high arches. And I've done some awful things to my feet. Broken bones a couple of times.... almost ripped my left little toe off in a tumble from a dock in Belize. So my feet are not normal and most shoes that I wear are only marginally comfortable.

But not my Keens. They are so comfy I am utterly unaware that I have shoes on my feet.

My winter-friendly Keen Ourays

The brand was originally designed for water-sports enthusiasts, kayakers, boaters, etc., who needed something lightweight, waterproof, quick-drying, with toe protection (an improvement over Tevas and other open-toed sandals).

I stumbled on Keen shoes by accident. I tried a pair on for the heck of it while killing time in an outdoor store in Grand Forks. I immediately bought them. I walked next door to meet Julie and showed my new shoes to her. She recoiled at the $80 price tag. I encouraged her to try a pair on, too.

She bought them.

I've worn my newest Keens birding, hiking, biking, and basically all day every day since December 25. I have found they don't really look good with formal wear, or with a Speedo. Every other situation is fair game.

I am about to put them to the ultimate test at a three day trade show called BirdWatch America in Atlanta, Georgia. Trade shows are like the New York City Marathon for feet because you stand all day on concrete. I am sure my Keens are up to the task and will keep my feet comfy while I am smiling and shaking hands, talking business, and telling bad jokes.

No, I am not a paid endorser of Keen shoes. I just like them a lot.

FYI, I also bought Julie a pair of Keens for Christmas. She's now got three pair.
Julie's Keens, also Ourays, color: brick

Tip: If you buy them online, order them slightly too large. The women's models tend to run a bit small. Probably best to find them in a good outdoor/shoe store so you can try them on first.

Here endeth the gushing....

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Waiting for the Wilco Call

It was one of those days at work today, when you feel like you are running waist deep in wet cement. I worked really hard, but did not seem to accomplish much. Such is the publishing business, lots of e-mails, phone calls, paper pushing, meetings, teleconferences, more e-mail and phone calls, and voice mail. Lunch, and repeat.

So I found myself watching for the light on my phone to come on with the phone call from Jeff Tweedy of my favorite band, Wilco.

Helen answers the phone in her always enthusiastic way, "Hello, Bird Watcher's Digest!"
"Hi, I'm calling for Bill Thompson, III"
"May I ask who is calling?"
"It's Jeff Tweedy from Wilco."
"BEEP!" (from the paging system) "Bill there's a Jeff Wilco from Tweedy calling on line one!"

Me: "Hello?"
JT: "Hi, is this Bill?"
BT3: "Yes"
JT: "It's Jeff Tweedy from Wilco"
BT3: "Dude, your new album ROCKS!"
JT: "Hey, thanks, man...."
BT3: "Best version EVER of Woody Guthrie's "One By One" and... "
JT: "Bill, we need your help."
BT3: "What? Me? Why?"
JT: "We need a new bass player. Someone that can rock out on stage with us by night and the next morning can lead bird walks for the band while we're on world tour. I got your letter, dude, so I know you're a fan of our music. Can you make it happen?"
BT3: "Let me think for a sec... YES! Dude I am SO there!"
JT: "But what about your family business, publishing Bird Watcher's Digest?"
BT3: "First of all, they are not my REAL family. My mom always said my real father was J. Paul Getty, so it's not that big a deal. Besides, a monkey could do my job. He'd have to be a smart monkey, with good grooming skills, and a working knowledge of Quark Xpress."
JT: "So we're cool?"
BT3: "Totally, dude!"
JT: "That rocks! Meet us in Cleveland tomorrow night. I'm e-mailing you the set list right now, and ......"

"BEEP!" (paging system again)
Helen: "Bill, there's a woman on line two who wants to know where her bluebirds are. They have not been in her yard for two months. Can you speak with her, please?"

BT3 (waking from an involuntary desktop nap): "Helen, what happened to Jeff Tweedy?
Helen: "What? Tweety Bird? Just talk to the bluebird lady!"

* * * *
I did write a fan letter to Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, or rather, I had my people write his people. I saw the Wilco show in Columbus, Ohio last winter. The music was unbelievably good and the digital images they showed above and behind the band were mesmerizing, featuring lots and lots of bird images. Several songs also included bird references, to the point where I wondered if, perhaps, the band might be into birds and birding. So I asked my agent to write a letter to Jeff Tweedy's agent saying I was a big fan of the band and, if any of them were into birding, I'd be pleased to send along copies of some of my books. I also invited them to Julie's and my bird ID talk at The Field Museum in Chicago (Wilco's home turf) last June.

Crickets chirping.....

Still no reply. But I'm keeping one eye on the phone light and one on the mail box, because there are simply not THAT many birding bass players in this world.
I think it's just a matter of time....

Monday, January 09, 2006

Chet Don't Like Penguins

We found out this morning that Chet Baker (the Boston terrier with a southern accent who has displaced Phoebe, Liam, and me in the hierarchy of Julie's affections) does not take too kindly to strange black-n-white critters such as, oh I don't know, plastic Adelie penguins.

Our cute penguin, a gift to Julie from our friend Sharon BirdChick Stiteler, blew off our front porch and down to our meadow's edge. When Chet spotted it today, he did what any other well-bred Southron man would do, he charged, barking, and pressed the attack. Gettin' thur furstus with th' mostest was his well-executed plan.

He grabbed the beast by its open plastic base, dragged it to his favored chewing spot underneath the Japanese maple, and would have chewed it into tiny plastic bits perfect for causing cuts needing stitches had we not rescued the poor Antarctic species (very endangered here in Ohio) from Chet's clutches. It was almost The Munch of the Penguins.

He wasn't through. He jumped up, snagged the bird back from Julie and shook it violently.
One thing is for certain: Chet don't like penguins.

Beautiful Morning

This morning's sunrise behind our martin gourds, which have produced bluebirds, tree swallows, and starlings, but no purple martins.

Man, it was beautiful morning here on Indigo Hill today. When I stepped outside to schlep my kids and stuff to the van, the air and light were so springlike, I thought I might have accidentally slept until late March.

When Phoebe, Liam, and I got out to the end of the drive to wait for the school bus, this male eastern bluebird was singing his head off above the Berg's cow pasture. I was proud that Phoebe heard the song and nailed the ID from almost 100 yards away. That's my girl!

My Favorite Ballad

Here's the sheet music book I play from on Sundays in our jazz trio. It's the Real Fake Book, Volume 6. Of all the ballads we play, The Nearness of You is my favorite.

I'd upload an MP3 of the song, as sung by Chet Baker (the trumpet-playing human, not the Boston terrier with the southern accent), or, for you Thoroughly Modern Millies out there, Norah Jones' recent version, but I do not want to go to prison for file sharing.

If you play piano, pick this tune out and you'll see what I mean. It's hauntingly beautiful.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Music Always, Jazz on Sundays

I grew up in a house that was full of music. Both my parents are jazz performers--my dad is an unbelievably good jazz pianist and my mom is a fabulous singer. In fact, they met when my mom (Elsa) auditioned for my dad's (Bill, Jr.) jazz combo at Marietta College in 1955. I remember many nights when the music room was full of family friends gathered around the piano singing while my dad played. The first time I remember actually playing music was with a pair of brushes on a metal TV tray, while my dad played the blues.

As a kid, I craved being able to stay up late listening and playing along when my folks had a music party. Even when it was bedtime, I'd lay awake listening to my dad playing, my mom's voice, and the all the sounds of joy and laughter floating like smoke up the staircase, down the hall to my bedroom.

I credit those music parties with my interest in music. Like millions of other kids I took piano lessons and I played an instrument in the school band (in my case, the trumpet). But my real music education came from playing music with other musicians, starting with my parents.

In high school I had an epiphany while writing a record review for the school newspaper. The record (remember vinyl records?) was Neil Young's Live Rust, and after hearing one of the long acoustic sides, I thought "Hey these songs are all just three chords! I can play three chords!" Poof! I was a guitar player. Much cooler to play your guitar at a high school party, I found, than your trumpet.

Dad encouraged me to take up the bass guitar, so I could play along with him. So before long I was learning the bass guitar and made my first feeble attempts at forming bands. As my bass playing progressed I would get to sit in with my dad's jazz group both at parties at our house, and at the occasional gig. And I kept on playing guitar and bass in my own bands, through college, and all the way to today. My first official gig with my own band? It was 1978 for an Electrolux vacuum cleaner sales convention, where we had to play the Electrolux theme song Caissons Go Rolling Along at least 12 times. This was actually good because it helped us fill the time--we only knew about 10 songs total and had to play for three hours. I remember a lot of sweating.

My dad grew up playing music with his best friend Bruce DeMoll. Bruce spent years on the road as a touring musician and composer with several big bands, including the Glenn Miller Band. Uncle Bruce was and still is, one of the best musicians I've ever known. Which is why I feel particularly lucky to have a regular weekly jazz gig now, playing with Uncle Bruce (at right, playing his soprano sax) and another fine musician, drummer Chet Backus (below, drumming).

We play a "jazz brunch" every Sunday at The Blennerhassett Hotel in Parkersburg, West Virginia from 10:30 am to 1:30 pm. Today's gig was our best in recent memory, in terms of virtually every song sounding and feeling really tight. When music happens right, it's beautiful. You don't have to work at it, you just feel it and let it happen. Today was like that, right from the first song We started with The Nearness of You, a lovely ballad written by Hoagy Carmichael--a song so melodic it would even sound good over a cellphone.

Brother Andy, Julie, and I are still rocking in the free world with The Swinging Orangutangs. Our next gig is Saturday, Feb. 4 at The Marietta Brewing Company. It's our first show in Marietta since last summer.

I feel really lucky to have grown up surrounded by music. Julie and I are inflicting the same houseful of music treatment on our own kids. I think it's working. Phoebe now walks around the house picking out songs on her plastic recorder. She's thinking about forming a band.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Mrs. Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Julie taking notes while Nancy regales us with ivorybill stories.
The wonderful, fascinating Nancy Tanner visited us this weekend, driven up to Whipple from Knoxville, Tennessee by our pal Janet McKnight. Nancy is the wife of the late James Tanner, the first ornithologist to spend significant time studying live ivory-billed woodpeckers in the field. Nancy accompanied James on two of his ivorybill expeditions and has some amazing stories to tell about her own encounters with this very special bird.

Julie and Nancy first met in 1989 at one of Jim's programs in New England. The two women became friends several years ago while Julie was researching her eerily prescient article on the ivorybill for Bird Watcher's Digest. Since then they've kept up a correspondence about all manner of things, so it's been a real treat to meet Nancy in person, and to have some time to speak with her.

She brought along with her a DVD with footage on it from the Arthur Allen/Cornell expedition into the Singer Tract in 1935. James Tanner, Nancy's husband was along on this expedition and you can see him as a young man, slogging through the swamp en route to a date with history. Tanner would return to The Singer Tract on several later occasions. Nancy recalls her last visit there, in 1941, when they counted 9 ivorybills, though she saw only five. Just a few years later The Singer Tract was logged and the birds disappeared.

According to Nancy Tanner, Richard Pough, one of the last visitors to The Singer Tract to see the birds, was there as it was being logged. His encounter with a lone female ivorybill who kept calling and calling, but got no answer, moved him to pledge to save the wilderness. He later helped in the founding of The Nature Conservancy.

It's humbling and amazing to listen to a first-hand account from someone who spent several days watching a family group of ivory-billed woodpeckers. Nancy was there, watching the members of a species that few of us may ever see. She hopes the birds can be found again in Arkansas, Louisiana, or elsewhere. And so do I.
Julie, Nancy Tanner, and Janet McKnight at the overlook on The Loop trail.

We've enjoyed our visit with Nancy and Janet. We took them on The Loop walk around our farm, we watched the DVD at least half-a-dozen times, and we told stories of our adventures. But mainly we listened to what Nancy had to tell us about her husband, the ivory-billed woodpecker, and the world as she has experienced it.
Nancy Tanner narrated for us as we watched extended footage from the 1935 Singer Tract expedition.

Farm Chores: I Do Windows

These feathers indicate the spot where a male cardinal hit our window. It survived, but was not happy.

We try to keep our windows as safe as possible for our wild birds. Being on a ridgetop, the large windows in Julie's studio naturally reflect the surrounding habitat and sky. Left unprotected, we might hear three or more thunks a day of birds flying unkowingly into the glass (which is invisible to them due to the bright reflections on the glass surface.)

We've tried netting and screen and found that it works 100% of the time, but it also blocks our light and obscures our vision. We've tried fake snow on the outside but not only does it wash off in the rain, it looks pretty weird to have fake snow on your windows in July. We've tried pie pans, aluminum foil, old CDs, rubber snakes. Nothing has worked as well for us a FeatherGuard, a solution dreamed up by Stiles Thomas of New Jersey. The theory is that the feathers not only catch the birds' eyes, they may serve as a warning of danger, since lots of loose feathers in one place in nature generally indicate that something violent has happened. Of course this is just a theory.

FeatherGuards are not perfect. They make a clicking noise when in place. The colored feathers may not match your drapes or house trim. And FeatherGuards do wear out and blow down, meaning you've got to replace them. This is what I am doing in the accompanying photos.

I tested FeatherGuard for two years on our giant north-facing windows and calculated a 98% reduction in window strikes. That's when I decided to start manufacturing FeatherGuard as a commercial product, with Stiles' approval and input.

The FeatherGuards are all made by my friends at Fairfield Industries, a sheltered workshop in Lancaster, Ohio, and they do a great job making this complicated little product. I'll never make a mint on this little adventure, but I do feel good that I'm helping to save birds.

My dream is that in the future, we'll be able to buy glass windows that are manufactured to be safer for birds, so we won't have to stick, spray, hang, paste, or otherwise adhere things to the surface.

At the Feeder, Lost Technology

Late this afternoon, things were slow at the feeders in the front yard. A female downy woodpecker was lazily stabbing at the suet, while a continuous stream of Carolina chickadees flew in to grab single sunflower seeds and spirit them away for consumption elsewhere.

This is odd because when I walked the loop this afternoon (looking for the walkie talkie that somebody dropped along the path) there were birds everywhere. Chickadees, titmice, both nuthatches, hermit thrushes, eastern bluebirds, five woodpecker species, three sparrow species. Perhaps the warm sunshine encouraged the birds to flock and forage along the sunlit, western slopes of our farm. It was nice to hear their gossipy chips as I walked along, scanning the ground for the missing bit of technology.

As Kip (pictured below as a cage fighter) sang so lovingly to his bride in Napoleon Dynamite:
Yes I love technology....
But NOT as much as you, you see
Still I love technology
Always and forever.

Yes, we found it. Thanks for your concern. Now, move along people....

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Starlings of Winter

It happens every year in mid-winter--the starlings descend on our feeders. We try to keep them at bay, but starlings have more physical ability than the Circ du Soleil acrobats. especially when it comes to getting to food at feeders, such as the suet we put out for our woodpeckers.

They crowd the edges of our suet dough dish, shouldering all other feeder visitors out of the way. They gobble down huge chunks of the soft suet dough, squabbling amongst themselves in a crazy feeding melee that empties the large plastic dish in a few minutes.

We tap on the kitchen window to spook them off the feeder, but they're back moments later. Moving the feeder closer to our kitchen window seems to help a little. Then only the boldest, most brazen starlings will visit the feeder. If we don't spook them for a while, we may have 30 or 40 birds on and around the feeder, eating whatever suet dough bits they can find.

Today's cold and snow brought the starling flock to our yard. They were a spooky bunch and I'm not sure if it was our tapping on the window or the unseen pass of an accipiter that made then nervous. If they are still here tomorrow, I'll try to get a photo of the feeding frenzy. In the meantime, I'll share with you a digiscoped photo of a starling that nested in our screech owl box last summer. I think breeding plumaged starlings are good-looking birds in spite of they hyper-competitive nature.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Chasing the Sun Home

Today was the first beautiful day of 2006--temp about 55 degrees F, sunny, nearly cloudless. Large flocks of American robins chortled their way over Marietta and landed on lawns hoping to find something edible. I half expected to see a chimney swift in the warm blue sky. My office window was open--and this is January 4!

Zick met me for a late lunch at Brighter Day Natural Foods downtown and when she told me she planned to honor the day by walking the loop trail at home, we hatched a plan to do the walk together.

It was not to be, for me at least. I could not pry myself away from the mountain of tasks at the office until after 4:30. This meant I had only about 45 minutes of good daylight left until sundown. I called Zick and told her to start without me. I hoped to meet her at the midway point of the loop. Then I hopped in the BWD van and started the 30 minute drive home to Indigo Hill.

Winter is cruel in many ways, but especially in its limited daylight. There are many days when I get home two hours or more after dark. Contrast this with glorious summer evenings when, even if I get home at 6:30 pm, I've still got three hours of light to enjoy outside.

Racing the sun home I was struck by how pink the low light made the bare gray trees. How the broomsedge grass in the meadows seemed to glow. It was a beautiful winter evening, but it was fading fast.

As I rounded the final curve before our township road, I glanced across the valley to our property and gasped. It looked like our birding tower was on fire! The sunset reflecting off the large glass windows created this momentarily horrifying effect. I took a not-very-good picture of it, just to document the moment. Then hurried the last mile home.

The best laid plans of mice and magazine editors...I walked deep into our west woods, over Catbird Head, and down along the west creek which was flowing nicely from yesterday's rain. My plan was to catch Julie and Chet Baker as they crossed the creek at the bottom. When I got there, I could tell I was too late. I could hear Julie whistling to Chet far up the gasline cut, almost to our orchard edge. So I stood there for about 20 minutes listening to the winter woods going to sleep for the night. A hermit thrush tchupped from the pathside. Juncos lisped to each other near the old barn down on Goss' Fork. And the cardinals kept up their chipping until it was clear the dark was overtaking the light. The moon made no sound as it rose through the bare tree branches. The woods rested, barely breathing.

I was entranced and peaceful. Then a cold shiver ran through me and I imagined my grandmother Thompson saying "A ghost just stepped over your grave."

Reverie broken, I turned east, and headed up the hill for our woods, then our meadow, then home.

What's That Bright Light?

Well the sun finally appeared for the first time in 2006. We staggered out of our homes and offices here in southeastern Ohio, squinting, screaming, and waving our arms wildly. We threw rocks and sticks at this strange bright orb, but with our eyes burning from the brightness all we hit was each other and Old Man Clapsaddle's manure spreader.

With the gray, rainy winter days we enjoy here, it's a wonder we don't all move to Lapland for the sunshine.

Never heard of Lapland?
It's where your lap goes when you stand up.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Red Phalarope Invasion

Two newsworthy items appeared in western newspapers concerning the unusual numbers of red phalaropes appearing along the Pacific Coast. This species normally winters in the offshore waters of the Pacific Ocean and is rarely seen on land. Flocks numbering more than 1,000 birds have been spotted on shore, even in residential neighborhoods.

Speculation over the causes for this phalarope invasion include abnormally stormy weather in the Pacific, making surface-gleaning difficult for these small birds, and a possible crash in the production of the birds' food base, small aquatic creatures.

Here are the two articles:
San Jose Mercury News
and from the Associated Press via the Tacoma, Washington News Tribune.

Window Strikes and Birds

Neat piece on NPR's "Morning Edition" this morning about Daniel Klem's work on preventing window strikes, centering on a new glass-walled building at Swarthmore College. The current solution is to use glass with small, faint circles etched into the surface. This seems to make the glass visible to birds and does not significantly obstruct the transparency of the glass for humans.

Several years ago we published an article in Bird Watcher's Digest on a homemade solution to window strikes, called FeatherGuard. This solution works really well at our farm and so I worked with the author of the article, Stiles Thomas, to develop FeatherGuard as a retail product. Here is my article from Backyard Bird News, "Top Ten Ways to Prevent Window Strikes."

I'm excited to watch for the development and commercial availability of this new etched glass. It would be great if bird watchers (and ordinary civilians) could buy this glass for their homes. I'm sure we'd all be willing to pay a little extra to help make our windows safer for birds.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Gray Day Go Away

It's a gloomy gray Monday here in SE Ohio. I found myself staring at images of some of my favorite sunsets from this year (my first year of carrying a digital camera virtually everywhere and snapping pix of anything).

I thought I'd share them just in case the weather is gloomy in your part of Planet Earth.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

First Bird of 2006

My first bird of 2006!

For as long as we've been together, Julie and I have made a big deal out of our first bird of the year. One year, in an effort to make sure she got eastern bluebird as her first species of the new year, I blindfolded her and guided her to the studio window and told her exactly when and where to look. She got it.

This morning I glanced out the window and saw a male northern cardinal, then remembered that this was NEW YEAR'S DAY! And this was my FIRST BIRD of 2006! Hey, it's a pretty good one, though. It could have easily been a house sparrow--we've been invaded this winter. Among the first 10 bird species I've seen in 2006 are eastern bluebird, eastern phoebe, and pileated woodpecker.

Julie's first bird was a blue jay. No blindfold needed.

Eve of the New Year

dancing with lights at Zane and Margaret's

We celebrated last night at Zane and Margaret's fab New Year's Eve party. Once again they outdid themselves with cool party favors and great music. Everyone got magnetic flashing buttons and flashing bendy tubes of plastic. The effect of people dancing, covered in flashing lights was hypnotic.

We feel privileged to be able to bring our kids along to this annual event, and Phoebe and Liam know they need to be on "best behavior" all night long.

Phoebe got a new outfit for the event and look mahvelous. My favorite moment of the night was dancing with Julie and both kids to a seriously cooking Latin song. Liam even dropped to the floor and showed off his break-dancing moves. What pure joy!
phoebe's new outfit, sparkles and grunge

We didn't make it to midnight at the party this year because the effects of too many late nights finally came home to roost with the kids. So we left at about 11:20 and tried to make it all the way home in time for midnight.

At the stroke of midnight, we'd made it as far as the start of our 1/4-mile-long driveway, but not all the way to our house. So we stopped the van and gave out our Happy New Year kisses in the driveway. It was certainly the most unexpected place I've ever celebrated the start of a new year.

Here's hoping 2006 is a year of amazing things... so far so good.