Monday, February 27, 2006

A Best Book Nominee for 2005

If you have not seen the new hawk ID book, "Hawks From Every Angle" by Jerry Liquori, you need to get your hands on it. The author is a longtime hawk watcher and photographer, and, judging from the information in this book, a hawk identification master.

This book's goal is sorting out the identification of raptors in flight. The approach is very straightforward, though the text can be a bit technical at times. The photos are excellent and are the book's strength. In my opinion, this book manages to defeat one of the negatives associated with photo-based guides, the reality that it's hard to get apple-to-apples comparisons between similar species using photographs.

Why? The images are almost never similar enough to make a comparison easy. The birds may be in different plumages, positions, light conditions. The images will likely be taken by different photographers--perhaps on different continents! For this reason, many bird watchers prefer their field guides to be illustrated with artwork, where the artist or artists can render the birds in similar fashion for the easiest visual comparison.

Jerry Liquori's book uses his photographs, images collected over years spent at major hawk watch sites. The author (and the book's designer) have done a great job of showing the birds in remarkably similar positions. Liquori covers 19 common raptor species and shows photographs (sometimes several) of each one Head On, Soaring, Gliding Overhead, Wing On/Going Away, accompanied by descriptive text. Even better, he outlines some common pitfalls of hawk identification. For example, while head projection (how far the head extends beyond the leading edge of the wings) can help a birder tell a (big-headed) Cooper's hawk from a (smaller-headed) sharpie, a sharpie with a full crop can appear to have the head extension of a Coop.

Like the title promises, Liquori delivers "Hawks From Every Angle." My hawk ID skills are improving with every page I read. In fact, I'd love to have this book in a distilled version, showing just the photos, for easy reference and use in the field.

In case you are an impulse buyer, here is the link to the book on Amazon.com.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Guatemala Landing

Our welcome committee in Guatemala included some old friends and some new ones.

We arrived in Guatemala City about an hour later than expected and by the time we said our hellos, got our luggage together, drove to the hotel, showered (a matter of international diplomacy) and got some lunch, we had just an hour left for birding before dark. Still, we made the most of it.

Our actual first birds in Guatemala (a game we always play when landing in a strange land) were black vulture (Julie) and great-tailed grackle (me).

After a late lunch we took a van to Cayala, a city ecological park in a large ravine on the edge of town. Other birds that we managed to find at Cayala in our last hour of daylight included orange-billed nightingale thrush, clay-colored robin, green parakeet, magnificent hummingbird, greater pewee, acorn woodpecker, and bushy-crested jay (an endemic here in Guatemala).

Marco and Julissa pore over a field guide, though Marco hardly needs to use one.

Tomorrow we go up a local mountain called Cerro Alux. I can't wait for a full day of birding. Today was a full day in airports and airplanes (including a movie starring Antonio Banderas and Katherine Zeta Jones, which I watched in Spanish).

Oh and I found this out. When an airline leaves your luggage out on the tarmac in the rain for an hour, EVERYTHING you packed gets wet, except your swimsuit.

Happy to be here in The Soul of the Earth.
If you have ever wondered what the rear view of a clay-colored robin looks like, here it is.

Leaving on a Jet Plane

This image of Julie getting spanked by a TSA agent in the Columbus airport is a great way to seque to a new topic--our trip to Guatemala.

We're in the Atlanta airport right now, waiting for our flight to Guatemala City. We are sharing a "juicy, juicy mango" and anticipating the week of birding ahead. Zick always brings good snacks when we travel. I, on the other hand, am in charge of logistics and traveler savvy. So when they asked for volunteers for the exit rows, I scored us these valuable enhanced-legroom seats. I just hope that I am the only Bill Thompson assigned to my seat.
This is an image from my 2005 trip to Guatemala, during a fabulous late afternoon of birding the Quirigua Maya site.

Our Internet access will be limited in Guatemala, so please excuse any gaps that appear in my posts here on Bill of the Birds. But I find that posting to the BOTB blog is strangely addicting, so I am sure I'll post if I am physically able.

¡Hasta luego amigos!

Three Bills of the Birds


We had a sighting of three Bills at Indigo Hill yesterday.
BT2 is my dad, William Henry Thompson, Jr.
BT3 is yours truly, William Henry Thompson, III.
BT4 is William Henry Thompson, IV, also known to go by the names of Liam or Popo.

I'll let you sort out which one is which.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Spring, for Now

Incredibly beautiful here on the farm today. All the birds were singing, the woodpeckers were drumming, and I half expected to see a tree swallow swoop down out of the ever-changing sky to give its liquid chatter from our telephone line (where the male always makes his first appearance each spring). The warm winds out of the south can fool even the most experienced season watcher into thinking it's time for gnatcatchers and crocuses.

But it's too early for tree swallows up here on the ridge. And I fear I'm pushing the season a bit to even hope that they are already making their way up the Ohio River Valley. There's one bird I do expect to arrive in the next few nights, or if he's already here, to make his presence known soon. Our American woodcock.

He'll start performing and peenting any night now. The first male usually begins flying his dusk courtship display around Feb 20. We stand out on our deck each evening, usually bundled up against the cold, and strain to hear the first peent! Then we listen for the twittering of his wings as he flies his spiral ascent into the night sky. For his first few sets we can pick his plump body out against the purple-gray sky in the twilight. Once darkness swipes the last bit of light, we must be content simply to listen.

I remember the incredible thrill I had our first spring here at Indigo Hill, when I realized that the woodcocks displaying in our meadow were, in effect, "our" woodcock. This had meaning to me because the very first place I ever witnessed this natural spectacle of the performing male woodcock is sadly long gone. A community college rests atop the scrubby hill where my first woodcock performed.

There is a part of me that hopes the woodcock will wait another week or so before he tunes up. It was in the mid-50s today, but tonight will be in the 30s and it's going into the teens during the next two nights. Hardly earthworm-probing weather.

Still, I'll be out on the deck each night that I'm home, cupping hands to my ears, straining to conjure spring's first peent.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Soul Spots

On a recent weekend afternoon I took off to my favorite local birding spot, The Wilds, to clear my head and to try a bit of digiscoping. Well, it was too windy to digiscope--neither the birds nor my spotting scope would sit still in the lusty wind gusts. But the wind did help me clear my head, and that was pleasingly refreshing.

There are a few bird watching spots that I have enjoyed revisiting over the years. They give me comfort, like an old friend with whom you connect so solidly that there's no need for re-establishing your relationship, you simply pick up right where you left off. There are a handful of places near our home here in southeastern Ohio where I find myself returning, seeking birds. But the feeling of being at home with the universe, the cosmos, life in general, or just with myself is still present at these places, even when the birds seem to be elsewhere. These are my soul spots.

And so it was on my recent trip to one of my soul spots at The Wilds. Not many birds, and those that were there were uncooperative subjects for digiscoping. Still, it felt great to be there. Smelling the ozone on the wind. Hearing the tinkling songs of the distant horned larks. Watching the sun retreat into its home beyond the western horizon.

I found myself staring at this solitary tree off to the north, making its way in the world, despite the long odds.

Sometimes it's perfectly fine when the birds don't cooperate.

The Song in My Head tonight is
When Stars Go Blue

by Ryan Adams

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Woodpecker Proof

I am pleased to announce to the world, with the publication of this photograph, that we now have definitive proof of a PAIR of pileated woodpeckers on our farm. We and hundreds of volunteers have spent countless hours trying to document this species' existence here on our 80 acre farm. We've put up millions of remote listening devices, billions of game cameras, and a couple of suet feeders. And now, the hard work has finally paid off. We HAVE THE PROOF.

Wait. What? No!

I'm being told in my headset that pileated woodpeckers are common here in southeastern Ohio. And that I'm confusing this species with the much rarer and possibly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker.

Well, that simply isn't fair. Dang!

If you want to get more familiar with the ivory-billed woodpecker and you've got the upcoming weekend (Feb 24-26) free, why not truck on down to the Call of the Ivory Bill Celebration in Brinkley, Arkansas? Lots of celebrity speakers will be appearing and there are thousands of acres of nearby habitat to search for this ultra-elusive woodpecker.

Wish I could be there with you, but I've got some sound recordings to analyze. I'm pretty sure we've got downy woodpeckers here, too.

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Song in My Head

And speaking of songs, the song in my head tonight is
In the Yard, Behind the Church
by Eels

Getting Movie Bird Songs Right

Earlier here in BOTB I posted about the digitally created calls of the Carolina parakeet featured in the new movie "The New World," directed by Terrence Malick.

A recent e-mail from birding broadcaster, jazz drummer, and BOTB reader Steve Moore included a link to this more in-depth article in Mix Magazine about the team that recorded and created the sounds (natural and otherwise) for the movie. Evidently Malick enlisted a team of experts to help him get the natural sounds, especially the bird sounds, as right as possible for coastal Virginia in the 1600s. And as a tip of the director's cap to birders, he supposedly inserted sounds of an ivory-billed woodpecker double rap into the film's credits.

It's clear that we need more of Hollywood's bigtime directors and actors to get into birding, if only so we aren't forced to hear common loons yodeling in the desert, or California quail calling in an obviously non-western setting. Hats off to Terrence Malick, Hollywood's most prominent birding movie director.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Laws of Digital Photography


Male purple finch, unhappy to be hounded by a paparazzo.

As editor of Bird Watcher's Digest, I have looked at, oh, perhaps 250,000 bird images in my career. This includes slides submitted for possible use in our various publications, digital images sent in via e-mail, and on CD or disk. Although I am not a professional bird photographer, I do think I know something about what makes a good image--sharpness, color balance, proper exposure, pleasant composition, and so on. But whenever I think I could be a top-flight bird photographer, if I only had $20,000 to sink into professional equipment, life gives me one of those "Not so Fast, my friend" experiences.

What is the one thing keeping me from being a truly good bird photographer (besides the lack of really good equipment)? Patience.

Here's how I know this: All of my photographer friends who are really, really good, devote countless hours to getting their images. They might lie prone in the mud all day long shooting frame after frame of shorebirds. Or they might squat in a blind in the freezing pre-dawn for several days in a row to get the best possible images of lekking prairie chickens. Or they might stalk a particular bird through the woodland edge for an entire morning--for just one shot!

Here's also how I know this: I am WAY too impatient to do these things. So I've opted for digiscoping, using my spotting scope and a digital camera. Easy, right? Well....

I got my new digiscoping rig, with some helpful advice from Clay Taylor at Swarovski Optik North America. And I've been itching to try it out, snapping some shots through the giant glass windows of Julie's studio (which makes the images come out slightly milky). It's 4 degrees outside. And though I am eager to get some good digiscoping shots, I am not THAT eager.

Besides, I am also discovering that The Immutable Laws of the Nature Photography Universe also apply to digiscoping. And here they are!

1. If you do not have your camera ready AT ALL TIMES, you will miss the best shots.
2. When the bird is perfectly posed, the light will be wrong.
3. When the light is perfect, the bird will be posed behind a branch or some other obstacle.
4. When the light is perfect, and the bird is perfectly posed, your camera batteries will be dead.
5. The AUTO setting on your camera helps guarantee that all of your shots will slightly blurry.
6. Yes, you can zoom in too far. In fact you ALWAYS zoon in too far.
7. The perfect shot you just nailed won't look so perfect once you import it into your computer.
8. If it DOES look perfect, you will accidentally delete it while reaching for the Oreos.
9. Isn't digital photography FUN?
10. Wonder how much I could get for this stuff on eBay?

Anyway, here are a few of my most recent efforts with the new camera and digiscoping adapters, etc.
Dark-eyed junco.
Female northern cardinal, trying not to look cold.

By inserting these golden fuel rods (made from processed sweet corn) into my ear
I've got the energy to take bad bird photos all day long.
photograph by Liam Thompson.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Bitter Cold

It's bitterly cold here on Indigo Hill today. And it's surely going to get worse after the weakling sun sets in an hour.

This image shows our snow-dusted meadow this afternoon, at the warmest point of the day--22 degrees. You can understand why I'm hoping the American woodcock males wait a bit before arriving here from the warmer South. The ground is icy, though not completely frozen. It might not break a foraging woodcock's bill, but he might get a headache.

At dusk on spring evenings, we may have as many as five male woodcocks performing in our meadow,
with others in nearby clearings and pastures.
Photo by Phoebe Linnea Thompson.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Dreaming a Highway


Tonight's Song in My Head is I Dream a Highway Back to You
by Gillian Welch


Hard to believe that Gillian made up most of the lyrics on the spot as she and David Rawlings were recording the song. Positively hypnotic.

Zick, Birds on NPR

Julie recorded a newsy commentary for NPR's "All Things Considered" today and walked in our front door just as it was airing on our beloved local NPR affiliate. The subject was The Great Backyard Bird Count, which starts today, and the role of amateur bird watchers in gathering important data about birds.

Audio for the show and JZ's commentary will be available after 7:30 pm EST tonight (2/17/06).

I am proud of my talented better half. She rocks the airwaves!
Julie, posing with her favorite of our three children, Chet Baker.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Big Weather Coming

The sky, not long after dusk this evening, from the big meadow at Indigo Hill, looking west.

We've got very unstable air here in SE Ohio tonight. The wind is gusty, swirling from all directions across our ridgetop, and making our house creak in strange new ways. It's still balmy outside, but we're slated to get a 25-degree temperature drop tonight. Hope the woodcock does not arrive early. He'll be sorry.

And his earthworms will be so cold, they'll be crunchy.

Hope he (and his buddies) wait until their normal arrival date of February 19.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

The Song in My Head tonight is:
The World at Large by Modest Mouse

This is, sin duda, one of the catchiest pop songs I've heard in many moons.

My thoughts were so loud I couldn't hear my mouth....

The Rusty Digiscoper

A female purple finch at our feeders. Shooting through window glass decreases the sharpness of digiscoped images.

Still missing an adapter for my new digital camera. (A Canon Powershot A520. It's a lightweight, fast, small camera that shoots at 4 megapixels--ideal for digiscoping.) An adapter, I hope, will permit my camera to mesh perfectly with my Swarovski spotting scope, so they can make beautiful music together.

But do I let the fact that I lack the right equipment stop me? NO! There's no such thing as a bad digiscoped shot--at least until you look at them on your computer.

I banged out a few images of our feeder birds through the studio window--knowing full well the images would not be sharp.
Northern cardinal digiscoped shot showing the classic bane of the digiscoper's existence, vignetting around the image.
This black "frame" can be cropped off, but if you take lots of pix, this can be very time consuming.

Same shot, cropped, using iPhoto.

I took a short walk after lunch, into our meadow, to try my new set-up outdoors, just like nature intended.

these are some of my earliest (least unsuccessful) attempts. It seems I have a lot to re-learn about digiscoping. Including whether or not to shoot un-zoomed or zoomed, and whether or not to take pix that will need to have the vignetting cropped off later...So many questions...
Male eastern bluebird, getting in a little pre-spring house hunting.

If you want to see how the pros do digiscoping, here are two excellent places to view some images and get some tips:

The Swarovski Digiscoping Gallery on the BWD website.

Mike McDowell's Digiscoping Blog.

BTW, if you are unfamiliar with the term "digiscoping" here's all it is: taking pictures using a digital camera held up to, or attached to, a spotting scope or other magnifying optics.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Song in My Head

It was the summer of 1972, and I was a ten-year-old Iowa boy standing on the shores of Lake Okoboji. Lake Okoboji is one of the Iowa Great Lakes in the northwestern part of the state, not far from the spot where Buddy Holly's plane crashed in 1959. It was late afternoon and the sunlight sparkled brightly off the lake's rippling surface. On the creaky wooden boat dock to my right a transistor radio crackle-hissed to life in the hands of my friend Juli Pohlman. She had white creme covering her nose and wore big round, black sunglasses. As she tuned in a local AM station, she turned to me and smiled.

The first song that came out of her small black radio was Heart of Gold by Neil Young. I listened to the acoustic guitar, the country-sounding rhythm of the song, and fell into a trance.

For the rest of that day, all that night, and for most of the rest of our week at Crescent Beach Resort, Lake Okoboji, I was humming, singing, or hearing Heart of Gold inside my head. There was something magical about Neil Young's high-whiny voice, the steel guitar in the background, and the imagery conjured by the line "Keeps me searchin' for a heart of gold. And I'm gettin' old."

This was my first experience with getting a song stuck in my head.

It has happened almost daily ever since. I am consumed with music--if I am not listening to it, I am playing it or thinking about it, so it's mostly a welcomed affliction. Some poor souls cannot abide it for a second. In fact, when I worked in a New York City advertising/PR firm in the mid-1980s my account team used to have contests to see who could place a song inside a colleague's head. Each of us would, throughout the day, whistle, sing, hum, or tap out a certain song that we thought was catchy enough to land in someone's cranium and stay there on an endless loop. Since I'd been cursed with song-in-my-head for more than two-and-a-half decades at that point, I was the undisputed champion. A few of my most insidious, can't-miss tunes? Burt Bacharach's Do You Know the Way to San Jose? is a great one. Sugar by The Archies, and of course, the greatest in-my-head tune of all time, My Sharona. You don't even have to sing My Sharona, just grunt out the opening guitar riff....

Da nuh-nuh-NAH, nuh-NAH, nuh-NAH, nuh-nuh-nuh-NAAH,
Da nuh-nuh-NAH, nuh-NAH, MY Sha-RONA!

Or just tap out the rhythm with your pencil. Someone nearby will pick it up and it will torture them for hours. I could walk down the main hall of our agency singing a catchy song, and by the time I was headed back to my office with my cup of coffee two minutes later, someone else would be singing that song. They finally asked me to stop doing this.

These days, when I get a song in my head--whether I like it or not--I find myself playing the song over and over again on my laptop, on my IPod, on my CD player, or even on my guitar. It's an OCD-like therapy, but it works for me. If I'm liking the song, I'll quickly tire of it after, oh, 40 listens over a few days. If I hate the song, and I cannot get it out of my head, I look for a song I truly love, maybe My Funny Valentine sung by Chet Baker, or Waiting in Vain by Bob Marley, and give it a very careful, attentive listen. The deep affection/connection I have for the beloved song always exorcises the evil, awful song from my brain.

I credit Neil Young's Heart of Gold, which tapped me on the ear that August day in 1972, with giving me the desire to play the guitar. In 1977 I finally bought "Harvest" the Neil Young album that features Heart of Gold. My parents always had music going, too, so my habit grew with their help.
So, to share with you some of the songs that get stuck in my head (I'll try to stick with the good ones), I'm launching a new mini-feature here on Bill of the Birds, called The Song in My Head.

If you are like me you might be curious enough to go right to the iTunes Store, to sample and even buy the song. I swear I drop so much dinero there that they have a yacht at Apple headquarters called Bill's Lust for Music.

The Song in My Head for the past week has been:
Casmir Pulaski Day by Sufjan Stevens

Thanks Neil!

Catching Up

Pillar of Venus. This image has nothing to do with today's post, but I like it. Photograph by Rondeau Ric McArthur

Catching up with everything today (and trying not to catch a cold), I've been visiting a few other blogs to catch up with my buddies. Here are a few that rang the chimes for me:

  • Jim McCormac's Costa Rica adventures as posted on the Ohio Ornithological Society's website. Dig all those tanager photos!

In other news, I received my new Canon digital camera today. Digiscoping again at last!
Here's a question: Why do the camera companies send, with new cameras, an internal data disk that only holds about 10 photos? Could it be that they want you to buy a larger disk? It's like selling a car with only 2 tires.

Looks like I'll need to cache up after I'm done catching up.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Further Vegas Adventures

A view of one tiny portion of the SHOT Show in Las Vegas.

Great last day in Las Vegas. The giant SHOT Show on its last day was less busy, so we had more time to talk shop. After the end of the show we headed to the opulent Bellagio to see "The Impressionist Landscape" art show on display there. No guns, no ammo, no Ted Nugent, just lots of amazing paintings from the 1800s--Van Gogh, Renoir, Millet, Corot. I found the landscapes most appealing of all. This was a nice antidote to a busy day of talking business. I didn't even mind using the gallery narration unit. It was a hand-held unit--sort of a combination nightstick and cellphone. You pushed the numbered buttons corresponding to the painting and heard the gallery curator's spiel about the artist and one or more of the works on display. And yes, she explained the circumstances behind Van Gogh's ear-cutting episode.

Later, Linda (BWD's ad. director) and I met Jeff Bouton, Leica's pro birder, for dinner at P.F. Changs, where we scored a really excellent table in spite of the maddening crowd. Likely because we looked like such high-rollers. After ordering and enjoying our entrees family-style (each plate passed round and round) we decided to adopt as our nicknames for the night, the name of our respective dishes. Linda would go by Ginger Chicken. Jeff became Orange-peel Beef. I, sadly, was Golden Honey Shrimp.

At 10:30 pm we decided to go birding on the Strip and the only place to do that was at the courtyard ponds at The Flamingo. A year ago, our late friend Jason Starfire had shown Jeff this peaceful spot where the banded, wing-clipped waterfowl on display are often joined by wild ducks. We found the spot, bought four beers, one for each of us and one in honor of Jason and for the next hour we enjoyed the pale-pink flamingos, Mandarin ducks, ruddy ducks, wood ducks, and a small flock of hooded mergansers.
The most photogenic and cooperative of the ducks at The Flamingo was this male ruddy duck.

The rushing water masked the sounds of the bustling city. A huge full moon shone down on us through the palm trees. We toasted our friend, who left us way too soon. We felt it was appropriate to remember him by doing a bit of midnight birding.

Midnight at the oasis, in the center courtyard of The Flamingo.

Now, it is Monday evening and I am headed east on a huge jet full of sneezing, coughing people (are planes ever full of anyone else in the winter?) Looking out the window of the airplane, I can see the snow-covered ground of the Midwest below me, uniform white rectangles bordered by gray, icy roads--square miles of farms. Out of the settling dusk I can make out the twinkling lights of tiny towns. At the horizon, the slight curvature of the Earth proves without a doubt that this planet is round and we're all just spinning in space.

I am headed home, eager for this journey to be over.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Occupants of Seat 10-F

On Friday I boarded a US Airways flight from Denver to Las Vegas. Because I'd been a polite and patient customer while waiting for my boarding pass and for my luggage to be checked, Joyce, the friendly US Airways service agent told me she'd try to get me a seat with legroom.

"You're in luck Mr. Thompson. We have Seat 10-F available and I've put you in it. That's a window seat on an exit row."

I fly enough to know that getting this max-legroom seat at the check-in counter shortly before your flight is like winning $100 on a rub-off lottery ticket.

I had just settled into seat 10-F when a large man and his wife stopped in the aisle and he said:
"Sorry buddy, but you're in my seat."
Me: "Is this 10-F?"
Big Guy: "Yep and that's MY seat."
Big Guy's wife, to me: "You should check your boarding pass."
Me: "Here it is. 10-F."
Mrs. Big Guy: "Hey, honey, he's got YOUR name on his boarding pass!"
Me, looking at my boarding pass: "No, William Thompson, that's me."
The Big Guys: "No way! I'm William Thompson, too!"


They sit down next to me and we ring the call attendant button. A gate attendant comes on board to ask for my ID. She explains that I booked through US Airways and the other Bill Thompson, booked through AmericaWest. (Apparently all the kinks are not yet worked out in the merger of these two companies.) Since there were two Bill Thompsons booked onto the same flight for the same seat, the system had automatically deleted my ticket for my return trip. I handed her my driver's license and she sprinted off the plane. This activity sent a wave or worried murmuring and craned necks through the cabin. The muzak playing over the PA system had no effect whatsoever.

So while we waited for my identity to be established so the plane could take off, Big Guy and I made small talk.

Me: "What's your middle name?"
Big Guy: "Irwin."
Me: "Ouch! Mine is Henry."

We found out that our birthdays are only 5 days apart. He and Mrs. Big Guy live in Wyoming. They were going to Vegas for a real estate seminar. The conversation slowed to a crawl and I began to feel guilty for holding up the plane's departure. We were lucky that the flight (for once) was not full, so we all kept our exit-row seats.

[Little did I know, then, I was to spend an hour with a reservations agent once we arrived at Las Vegas, trying to get my ticket fixed.]

Soon things were put temporarily right by the Vegas gate agent, I got my ID back and we took off. Seconds later, just before I stretched out my legs and fell asleep, I took this picture of the Two Occupants of Seat 10-F, both named William Thompson.

The Las Vegas Diet

There are times when something you see or experience has the overwhelming effect of completely erasing your desire for food of any kind. Today I had three (3!) such encounters.This sign scared me as I washed my hands at a Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas. I was (understandably) unable to finish my chimichanga when I returned to the table.

Then there was this sighting of Ted Nugent at the SHOT Show, which completely ruled out an afternoon snack.And finally, this giant image of Wayne Newton made sure that I'd go to bed without eating a bite of dinner.

Viva Las Vegas, baby!

Birding Henderson, NV

Natural beauty abounds at the Henderson, Nevada sewage treatment facility.

I spent my happy morning today enjoying the birdlife attracted to the Henderson, Nevada, sewage treatment plant. Michael and Diane Porter of birdwatching.com picked me up in their rental car at my cheesy casino hotel, and we headed (blessedly) out of town to the birdiest place for miles around.

The huge sewage lagoons of the Henderson facility shine like a beacon to birds and wildlife looking for water in this harsh desert. Several years ago, when I was facing a weekend in Vegas, I found this birding hotspot on the Internet and ever since, it has acted like the anti-venom for the time I've had to spend here in Sin City. A few hours birding at the Henderson Poo Tumbler and I'm good to go.

This is one of the few places on Earth where birders are accorded the special treatment that we deserve. And how fitting, since this is a treatment facility. When you approach the heavily fortified gate of the Henderson Sewage Treatment Plant, you are faced with lots of signage that warns "Absolutely No Admittance", and "No Trespassing."

Why so secure? Well, you can imagine that Las Vegas has a vested interest in making sure its highest-volume outflow is handled properly. Right next to these warning signs, near a telephone keypad, it says "Bird Watchers Press #100 and Wait for Answer." When you do this, a perky voice says "Hello?" And you say "Yes we'd like to go birding!" "Oh, great! I'll open the gate for you!" comes the answer. And the giant steel gate begins to slide off to the left, clearing your entry path.

Once inside, you must sign in at the visitors' center, where you can also peruse the list of recent sightings, get a map and checklist, and buy any number of souvenirs.

It was a beautiful morning, clear and cool with a light westerly breeze. The sounds of verdins and Gambel's quail greeted us before we'd slammed the car doors. I was SO happy that I chose to get some birding in before the SHOT Show. It seemed the civilized thing to do.
I've never seen so many northern shovelers in one place as we found this morning at the Henderson treatment plant.

We walked a couple of miles around the settling ponds, occasionally trading sightings and info with other bird watchers. Mostly we just enjoyed bird after bird, Some of them were ones we knew well from back East (the Porters hail from Iowa)--osprey, loads of ducks, especially shovelers, song sparrows, Lincoln's sparrows, white-crowned sparrows. Other species were more exciting for us non-Westerners, including Say's and black phoebes, crissal thrashers, Abert's towhee, and the aforementioned Gambel's quail. We ended the morning with a little better than 40 species.
A Say's phoebe (above) and a black phoebe (below) made me miss my own sweet Phoebe.
It was a treat birding in Henderson with Diane and Michael Porter.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

From an Airplane

Here is some aerial eye-candy for you. My flight from Denver to Las Vegas flew over some of the most stunning mountain vistas in the West. I know taking pictures out an airplane porthole is stupid and the results are rarely worth saving, but I could not resist. Besides, as a Big Fly, the birding was dismal: house sparrow, rock pigeon, Euro starling.

I was fascinated by how the topography changed, how it seemed there were different species of mountains. So here's what I saw and what the camera captured. I was sitting over the wing in the exit row (and there's a funny story there, which I will try to get up here later today), so I had to crop the plane's engine and wing out of a few of these.
Hope you enjoy....

Snowy-capped peaks leaving Denver.


This view reminded me of a Japanese watercolor.

Red and coppers as we flew over Utah.
The last mountain ridge east of Vegas.

Las Vegas:The anthill in the desert.
The actual mountains all around Las Vegas must not have been pretty enough to look upon.
Manmade mountains along The Strip. Please, Mr. Captain-From-the-Flight-Deck, can we fly over the real mountains again?

Friday, February 10, 2006

Boulder, Land of Spandex & Fleece

Snow made the mountains outside Boulder even more majestic this morning.

This red-tailed hawk was just waiting for a slow prairie dog.
Douglas and Caroline and their beloved dog Lola.
I spent Thursday night visiting friends Caroline & Douglas in Boulder, CO. Caroline is my fellow Western College alum, a gifted singer/musician, and a very talented graphic designer. Boulder is a very lovely place tucked between the foothills of the Rockies and the edge of the Great Plains. Very dramatic landscape, lots of birds and wildlife, perhaps the city with the most greenspace of any other here in the US. And the population of Boulder avidly takes advantage of the easy access to the great outdoors. I have never seen more spandex, lycra, or polar fleece in my life.

I visited these same friends back in the early 1990s and one morning I hiked up the mountainside on the edge of town, near their house. I got to a natural place to stop and, looking back down into Boulder below me, I was struck by the amount of physical activity I could see. people were jogging, speed walking, doing Tai Chi, bicycling, skateboarding, rollerblading, playing tennis, playing soccer...it was incredible.

When Julie and I travel we often play a game called Could You Live Here?
Nearly always, Julie's answer to that oft-posed question is: "Too dry to grow good tomatoes!" or "I'd spend all my time watering." But Boulder is one place I know I could easily live. Julie is going to have to bring her watering can, though.

Caroline and Douglas and I took a short hike this morning on an old cattle ranch now owned as green space by the city of Boulder. The cold morning air crackled as we walked along the snow-covered footpath. In the distance, the Rockies occasionally peeked out from behind the clouds. All around us black-billed magpies whistled, warning each other about us and about the large number of raptors around--red-tailed, bald eagle, American kestrel northern harrier. Prairie dogs whistled warnings, too. Other notable sightings included red-shafted flicker, common raven, and horned lark. The walk was too short, but nonetheless I breathed a bit hard. The air was thinner than I was used to, since we were hiking at 5,600 feet.

It was a lovely way to end our too-short visit. But we've got plans to get together next fall at the Festival of the Cranes in New Mexico.
CQ and I pose in front of the mist-enshrouded foothills of the Rockies. That's Lola, world's second-best dog.

Denver Images & Impressions

Here's one way that Denver is different, beside the well-know fact that this Colorado city is a mile high. When you look down streets, facing westward, you just might catch a glimpse of the Rockies in the distance.
Downtown Denver has a pedestrian shopping mall, 16th Street, that was very pleasant to wander along at night--great people watching! Here's the view down 16th Street late at night. I found most of the people I met in Denver to be very cheerful and helpful. This is always nice to encounter when traveling.

My time at the NANPA summit was enjoyable--lots of photographer friends I had not seen in a while. On Wednesday night I ventured out for dinner with a flock of photogs, including Marie Read, Richard & Susan Day of Daybreak Imagery, and Connie Toops. I should point out that this is not the Susan Day (Dey) that starred on The Partridge Family. This is Illinois Susan Day, who, in my opinion, is much more talented....We enjoyed a yummy, laff-filled dinner on Wednesday night. Funny, I was the only one toting along a camera.

Leaving Denver today, at the airport, the US Airways agent that helped me was happy and seemed to be unaffected by the horribly rude, impatient, and too-tan-for-their-own-good departing ski tourists. I actually had to say to one angry older man (who could have smuggled a six-pack of Coors in his nose hair) that I though he needed to calm down. I've been late for a flight before, and very upset at the glacial pace at which things move when you are impatient to get going, but, having waited tables and worked in retail, I know what it's like to be treated poorly by a customer, so I just don't ever go there. On the other hand, I won't tolerate being treated poorly by a customer service person, either. But there's no need to yell and scream. That'll just get you a security guard on each elbow. The worst thing I'll say to someone is: "You seem to be really having a bad day. I know I'm not the cause of it, but maybe I should talk to someone else." This usually gets a dumbstruck look, then a half smile, and often, an apology. But it always gets a change in attitude.

While I am pet-peeving...why is it that there's free wireless access at every Motel 5-1/2 in the country but the Hyatt Regency, where you pay $200 a night, hits you up for another $10 a day to get online?

Heading to Lost Wages, Nevada now. Sitting in the Denver airport, where there is NOT free wireless access. What is wrong with these airports and hotels? Shouldn't free wirelss Internet access be an inalienable right?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

How to Find Me in Denver

If you are an aspiring nature photographer at the NANPA Summit in Denver, here are three great suggestions for how to find me (in the event that you are interested in finding me, that is).

1. Look for the handy (and attention-grabbing) table-top signage at my review table.

2. Read all name tags until you see this one, heavily adorned with status-shouting event participation ribbons that are actually just pieces of flair.
3. Find a huge glass building with a giant blue bear staring in the window.

Bird Flu


A BBC story today describes the recent discovery in Africa of the first case of bird flu in poultry. Though it has not been proven, some scientists are hypothesizing that migratory birds may be vectors in spreading the disease.
Nearly all the birds affected have been domestic fowl--chickens and geese. Through early February, nearly 150 human cases have been diagnosed, and more than 70 humans (primarily in East Asia) have died from the human strain of bird flu, known as H5N1. Nearly all of these deaths involved people who were in close proximity to poultry.

Here is an excellent compilation of articles and information about bird flu on the BBC web site, including an informative Q&A section.

On the World Health Organization web site you can see the worldwide compilation of all bird flu cases.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Headed West


Tomorrow I head to Denver for the North American Nature Photographers' Association meeting where I'll be reviewing portfolios from some of tomorrow's great nature photographers. Having spent a few nights the last few weeks watching American Idol with Julie and Phoebe, I'm thinking of letting my inner Simon Cowell out.

I've been practicing this phrase in a British accent:
"These are, without a doubt, the WORST bird photographs I have ever seen! Sorry, it's a NO."

Or maybe that wouldn't be such a good idea.

Then I go to the SHOT Show in Las Vegas (my second-least-favorite city on the planet). SHOT stands for Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade. It's primarily a hunting show, but you can also see lots of new outdoor gear there, plus thousands of products associated with the outdoor industry. The SHOT Show is billed thusly: "It's like sitting around the campfire with 37,730 of your closest friends." This is something of an exaggeration. Most of my closest friends are not this well-armed.

Fortunately, while I am gone, an entire battalion of National Guard troops will be staying on our farm, training their Dobermans to kill intruders.

Have a nice day! Viva Las Vegas!

Angus Cheesy

"Would you like fries, Zocor, or a defibrillator with that?"

This is one of those signs that makes me so very proud to be an American.

I mean in what other country in the world can you...
A. get an Angus burger?
B. get an Angus burger that's cheesy?
C. get an Angus burger that's cheesy AND bacony?
D. have the word STEAK thrown in just in case you were unsure what Angus meant?

What a totally awesome country we live in! From now on, I'm referring to anything that's awesome and cool as "Angus Cheesy." As in: Wow, man, those are some Angus cheesy shoes you've got on there.
Feel free to use this catchy phrase in your own world.

Wait! Am I totally wrong here? Wasn't Angus Cheesy the lead singer in AC/DC?

Eeeyah! Eeeyah!

As I got out of my van at the BWD offices this morning, a very het-up red-shouldered hawk flew into the giant sycamore that shades and protects our building, screaming its head off.

Eeeyah! Eeeyah!

Then, just as quickly it flew off. I was happy to receive such a heartfelt welcome to the office, though I suspect that the bird's mate may have been a more likely inspiration. A pair of red-shouldereds has nested in the nearby wetlands every year since we took possession of this building in 1992.

Redshoulders are the daytime equivalent to the barred owl. Both species prefer wet woodlands where they can find lots of frogs, snakes, toads, crayfish, and other water-loving prey items. We have a couple of pairs nesting on or near our farm. Hearing their in-flight screams is a real sign of spring for us.

Monday, February 06, 2006

More Cowbell!


Saturday night's Swinging Orangutangs' gig was a spectacle to behold. It was certainly our best attended bar show ever--SRO throughout the entire Marietta Brewing Company. Lots of old friends/friendly faces as well as scores of unfamiliar live music fans.

I always gauge our shows not just by how well we play (though that's important) but also by how many people dance. That's an obvious clue that you are connecting with the audience. There are other, subtler clues to show if your music is getting over: are people nodding their heads or tapping their feet in time with the beat? Are they singing along? And I always try to check out my musician friends in the crowd--are they digging it, too?

We had a few rusty moments on Saturday night--but not too many. It was especially gratifying that several of our new songs went over well, particularly our new original compositions. Because you never know...I can hear a song and think "Wow! That would be a great one to play with the 'Tangs." But then getting a recording of it, learning the chords and lyrics, and putting together an arrangement with the band is like a giant filtering process. Not every song makes it through to being played live. And some that do make it into one of our shows do not go over well and so are scrapped.

When a band plays someone else's song, especially a popular song, it's know as "covering" the song. Top-40 "cover" bands are very popular since they play only music that is on the radio, whether it's pop, country, rock, or something else. I played in a cover band once and from that experience I know what it must be like to be a jukebox. BORRrrrring!
Creamy Delight, my Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster served me well, despite having two drinks splashed on her.

In The Swinging Orangutangs, we almost never play pop songs of the day. Oh sure, we cover songs you know well, but we don't try to be an exact replica of the song as it sounds on the radio or stereo. And we do lots of obscure, funky, and downright weird cover tunes ("When the Iceworms Nest Again" by Stamfel & Weber or "$1000 car" by The Bottlerockets come to mind).Our set list for 2.4.06, enhanced for your enjoyment.

The joint was jumpin' literally. All the dancers made the floor bounce.
Andy signals fro another brandy snifter full of green M&Ms.
Steve McCarthy, our beloved drummer, in the Dark Hole of Percussion at the back of The Marietta Brewing Company. It's Steve's funky drumming that makes 9 out of 10 Orangutangs' fans dance like no one is watching.
Dancing continued until the wee hours, when the cows finally came home.

We often have a raffle at our live shows. Sometimes we raffle off lawn ornaments (the sleepy Mexican complete with burro and sombrero was a big hit). Once we raffled off a brass toilet paper holder and a kitchen sink. A "yard-o-beef" from Hickory Farms was a huge hit. Saturday night we raffled off an entirely new item. It was the chance to play cowbell, live on stage, as The Swinging Orangutangs played "Don't Fear the Reaper." Our friend Dan Harrison had the winning ticket and, I have to say, he acquitted himself nicely. Bruce Dickinson (the man who spoke those immortal words "We need more cowbell!") would have been pleased.
Dan Harrison (white shirt) has got a fever. And the only cure is more cowbell.

Julie and I do a show at birding festivals, called "Music of the Birds." We play music and sing while showing images of birds and nature. We're always looking for new birdy songs to include, so I think we'll add "Don't Fear the Creeper."

I totally live for music nights like we had on Saturday. There is something so rich about closing my eyes and letting the rhythm and music and the energy of the gyrating crowd wash over me. Ahhh.

In the spirit of all the post-Super Bowl interviews with the victorious Pittsburgh "Stillers":
I could not do it without my bandmates. We just take things one song at a time. We give 110 percent every gig and leave it all out there on the stage.

For more images and (better) writing about this most recent TSO gig, see Julie's blog.
Me, eyes closed, awash in music, lights, rhythm. There was also some pale ale involved.

Special BIG THANX to Shila Wilson for being our personal pan paparazza. These images are her work.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Tonight's the Night

Yes, I love "Tonight's the Night" as done by Neil Young. And by Rod Stewart, too. We won't be playing either one at tonight's Swinging Orangutangs' show, though we might whip out the Rod Stewart song if it's requested.

In spite of all the great rumors about Rod Stewart's backstage antics, and his love of English football (we call it soccer), I have to say his recent albums of jazz standards are embarrassingly bad. Rod, old mate, old bean! Sing the stuff you're good at singing and leave the standards to Mel "The Golden Fog" Torme.

Anyway, we're all excited about tonight's show. The Marietta Brewing Company is expecting a very large crowd and seeing lots of gyrating people always makes us play better.

First song of the night goes to Julie. She's singing "I Can't Let Go" by Lucinda Williams.

And in the back of our minds while we're playing tonight will be friends and loved ones who are not able to be with us, friends who are unwell, and a few who are no longer with us (especially Uncle Don Butler).

Our banjo playing/amazing artist friend Debbie Kaspari (formerly of the notorious West Coast bluegrass band The All-Girl Boys) sent along these orangutan drawings for us to use in future promotion efforts.

And yes, we spell it wrong: orangutang, not orangutan. We put the 'tang back in orangutang.
Hope to remember to take some pix of the scene tonight. But I might be having too much fun to remember.

Once again, as it is written in The Immutable Laws of the Musical Universe: "On Any Day that a Musician is Carrying or Transporting Valuable, Delicate Equipment, the Sky Shall Pour Forth a Heavy Rain."

Peace.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Remember the Dippy Bird

If you were a kid in the 1960s you might remember the Dippy Bird (sometimes called The Sippy or Drinking Bird). It would teeter over and dip its bill into a small glass of water. How did they do it?

These creatures fascinated me. Still do.

So you can imagine my excitement at Christmas when I opened up my gift from my sister-in-law, Barb and found this amazing green-tufted woodpecker toy. Start the cute l'il feller at the top of the metal rod and watch him work his way to the bottom. This is a very enjoyable toy (and a thoughtful gift for the birder on your holiday list).
Tuft waving from his exertion, the green-tufted woodpecker hammers his way to an
inevitable conclusion at the bottom of the only "tree" he'll ever visit.

There is a wildness in this bird's eyes that I find so enchanting.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

True Adventures in Birding #1

On a trip to Sanibel Island, Florida, I was birding along the causeway where all the fisherpeople hang out, white styrofoam bait buckets baking in the hot sun. There were terns and gulls galore flickering in the rather lively breeze and herons and egrets standing around like loitering teenagers. A beautiful gulf coast afternoon and I was 50+ species into a great day of birding.

As I scanned the scrubby habitat on the road's shoulder, just 20 feet from the edge of the inlet, a dark shadow passed overhead, momentarily blotting out the sun. Glancing upward, I saw one, then three, then ten large, prehistoric-looking birds fly low over me and the clot of nearby fisherpeople.

"Hey! Frigatebirds!" I shouted spontaneously to no one in particular. I exclaimed this news in that high, excited voice we birders use when we spot something really great. It sounds equal parts Michael Jackson and someone who just opened their door and saw Ed McMahon holding a large check. (To be fair, I was excited, this was my second-ever frigatebird sighting).

The elderly couple nearest me glanced up from their rods and reels, cigarettes dangling out of two faces covered with five day's growth (yes, his and hers beards). The man, who looked like, if he was here on vacation, it was gonna be a long one, shouted over the wind, "Whadidja say?"

I pointed up, smiling and said "Frigatebirds!"

He replied, "Yeah, I KNOW! I HATE them friggin' birds. They're eatin' up all the feesh!"

His wife, staring wide-eyed at me, nodded slowly but emphatically in agreement. Her giant black, blot-out-all-light sunglasses twinkled in the sun. Then, as if to put an exclamation point on this statement, she flicked her cigarette butt into the water. It landed right next to her bobber.

For a moment I thought to correct him/them, thinking it was my duty as a bird watcher, as a fellow nature appreciator, and as an American. These were magnificent frigatebirds! Man-o-war birds! The acrobatic flying pirates of the sea! These folks deserved to know this incredible species.

Instead, I slunk off to my rental car. I opened the driver's door, sat down, and beat my head against the steering wheel.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Canada's Giant Roadside Things

Oh my god! I've hit the motherlode!

Bill of the Birds
visitor Janet Egan kindly posted this link in a comment to the giant prairie dog posting (below). And, really, what can I say? The Canadians are so much more highly evolved than we Americans are. This is most clearly demonstrated by this giant piping plover, or better yet, but this bigfoot (complete with loincloth).

The other birds at this site are enough to make you say "Oofta!" Especially fetching is this giant owl (above, photo by Kevin Kilbrei), labeled only as a grey owl (note British spelling of gray).

Or you might want to check out the musical instrument or intergalactic categories of the Large Canadian Roadside Attractions web site.

Janet, THANK YOU!

Trails in the Sky


An amazing set of contrails in the morning sky over our farm. We rarely hear the planes as they pass overhead at an altitude of many thousands of feet. On cold mornings (when the air up high is much colder) the contrails hang in the sky for hours. The patterns can be fascinating.

I wonder where all the people on those planes are headed and what they are thinking about. Do I know any of them? Are they looking out the plane window and wondering about the tiny playland below them?

Looking at the sky's changing face is something that has always fascinated me.

In the days immediately following September 11, 2001 the sky above us was almost entirely free of aircraft (a few military craft flew over). This meant no contrails during the day and no flashing lights in the night sky. The weather was incredibly clear and beautiful, as it often is in mid-September. We sat in our tower at night, easily picking out the satellites passing overhead amid the silent, twinkling stars. We found ourselves marveling at nature's ability to carry on when we humans felt so helpless, and nearly hopeless. The barred owls carried on hooting. The katydids kept up their rasping sounds. We took comfort in these small signs that everything was going to be all right.

The sky this morning was ample evidence of that.

Giant Things of Canada

Loyal Bill of the Birds watcher Rondeau Ric has a nephew in Alberta, Canada who, while lost one day, stumbled upon what may very well be the world's (certainly Canada's) largest AND ugliest prairie dog. Thanks Ric (I think)!