Friday, March 31, 2006

Going Cuckoo in the Mangroves

Early morning on the deserted wildilfe drive at Ding. On any other day there would be hundreds of other visitors.

This morning we were invited along on a mangrove cuckoo census survey with three local naturalist/interns, two of whom, Andrew and Debbie, work at Ding Darling NWR. This was the first cuckoo survey of the season, so we did not know what to expect. But since the mangrove cuckoo would be a life bird for both Julie and me, we eagerly accepted the invite.

We met the Ding crew at the visitors' center at 7 am and drove into the refuge via the legendary wildlife drive. What made today special, other than our quest bird, was the fact that Ding is closed to the public on Fridays. So we had the place to ourselves! After seeing the high traffic of yesterday afternoon along the drive, this was an amazing difference. Though I have to admit that the birds in the refuge seemed equally oblivious to human disturbance whether there were 20 cars along the drive or just our one official government truck.
My shadow led me down the road to get a closer look at some shorebirds.

Since it was still early in the season, we did not get our hopes up for seeing the cuckoo. In fact, we made a point to be very light-hearted about things, even calling it the "Mangrove Throat-Warbler" spoofed in Monty Python years ago (Andrew and his friend Stephanie were too young to remember this--which means, conversely, we are old enough to remember....)

On the way to the first listening site we stopped to admire some shorebirds and a very active osprey nest. The male osprey flew in with a stick to the nest, but this did not seem to impress the female. Both birds flew off the nest when a bald eagle began calling nearby.

A male osprey (note lack of dark "bra") perching near his nest along the wildlife drive at Ding.

Cardinals down here on Sanibel sound different to our Ohio-accustomed ears--these southern ones sound sweeter, higher, and more slurred than our midwestern birds. In fact, Julie initially heard one and thought it was Tennessee warbler. We ridiculed her for hours on that one. Until I misidentified a sharpie as a fly-by cuckoo--a taste of my own medicine.

How could I resist taking this guy's photo? A male northern cardinal in the Deep South.

During our third or fourth stop, Andrew and Debbie heard a distant mangrove cuckoo call. Jules and I were 50 yards away digiscoping a pileated woodpecker, and missed the call. I got that sick feeling in my stomach that I might have just missed my chance. The calling bird did not come closer. We moved along farther down the drive.

Just look at the excitement on the faces of these bird watchers as they ogle their life mangrove cuckoo!

A stop or two later a cuckoo called from close by and then came toward us. I spotted it flying but lost it, then we all saw it as it passed in front of us, crossing the road and showing us its buffy underparts. It perched where we could all see it and I got the bird in the scope. Ooohh-laa-laa! Such a lovely creature. And I snapped away with the camera while the cuckoo called and preened. He, too seemed to have the Ding Darling acclimation to humans. Debbie had to leave us after this sighting, so we exchanged high-fives all around (and e-mail address so I could share some of my photos).

Ten minutes later, just after a large flight of roseate spoonbills flew over us, and a young bald eagle made large circles in the sky, another cuckoo began calling very near to the road. This bird made our first one appear skittish. I took about 40 digiscoped photos of him--getting about 85% keepers.
The world's most cooperative mangrove cuckoo.

We spent at least 20 minutes with this mangrove cuckoo. What a bird!

A fabulous finish to our short Florida adventure. As we headed back to clear out of our hotel, Julie asked me our standard bird-trip question: "What was your favorite bird of the trip?"

"Why the mangrove throat-warbler, of course!" She knew what I meant....

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Ding Darling NWR

I could not resist photographing this tricolored heron in high breeding plumage.

Today was our program at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, and things went surprisingly well, despite a few AV problems. We were the last lecture in the seasonal series sponsored by The Ding Darling Wildlife Society. The series runs from mid-January through end of March each year and the lectures are free and open to the public.

If you've never been to Ding Darling NWR, well you are missing out. It's one of the must-visit places for birders worldwide because its a huge tract of preserved mangrove swamp which attracts all kinds of birds and wildlife. The birds at Ding are famously acclimated to people so this is a great place for bird photography and to work on your shorebird ID skills. The five-mile wildlife drive can be enjoyed on foot, on a guided-tour tram, on bikes, on roller blades!, or in your own car. We zipped around the drive in the morning before our talk, enjoying excellent looks at reddish egrets, tricolored herons, and a couple of large flocks of shorebirds.
A mixed flock of resting shorebirds. We saw almost no shorebirds in breeding plumage today.

During our talk we performed some music, just to change things up a bit. Julie and I played and sang "Side of the Road" by Lucinda Williams, "Winter's Come and Gone" by Gillian Welch, and "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowbirds," with apologies to Willie Nelson. the last tune was done as a singalong, and several people in the audience, we think, need to audition for American Idol next year.
After the talk we signed books for an hour (fun!) chatted with Lise Bryant, the refuge bookstore manager, and split for our hotel and a siesta.

Later this evening we met Don and Lillian Stokes for dinner at a posh local restaurant. The conversation was both varied and interesting ranging from dogs to birds of Sanibel, to the book biz, TV shows, and land conservation easements. Mostly we exchanged info about our hobbies of blogging and photography. You can read their post about our program on their blog. And while you are there, check out Lillian's photos of flying pileated woodpeckers--lots of white in those wings!

All in all a good day. Tomorrow we enter the mangroves in search of mangrove cuckoo before heading for the airport.


When we arrived on the beach, this is how the sunset looked.

Julie and I spent yesterday making the trip down to Sanibel Island, Florida. We're giving a lecture this afternoon at Ding Darling NWR for the DD Wildlife Society. It's our "Identify Yourself" talk about our book by the same name and we're looking forward to giving it.

Whenever we travel (and especially when we fly) we always try to guess the first bird we'll see upon arriving. Yesterday, upon landing at the Fort Myers airport, I guessed black vulture and Julie guessed cattle egret. We were both wrong. Boat-tailed grackle.

We soaked up the sunset from the beach behind our very nice hotel. And I did a bit of digiscoping. As we looked up the beach behind us, we could see dozens of camera flashes going off. We wondered why people would be using flash to photograph the sunset? Perhaps their cameras are still set on "Duh!" Every time I turn my camera on, it reverts to "Duh!" mode and I need to adjust it for digiscoping.

The white ibises (ibi?) were almost too close for digiscoping.

Anyway, great sunset, lovely sunrise this morning and some more digiscoping, too. I'd like to thank the very cooperative white ibis for their role in this morning's successful shoot.

Shutterbug Zickefoose strikes her action pose to get the perfect angle.

Minutes after our arrival, this is how the sunset looked. We took 4,000 pictures, each.

Sunset and extraneous minutiae. Photo by kindly bystanders.

Now, off to the refuge for some reconnoitering and (I hope) more digiscoping.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

My Guatemalan Birthday

I started March 3rd off on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.

On March 3, 2006, I woke up before dawn to the roosters crowing GUAT-E-MAA-LAAA! in the town of Tolliman on Lake Atitlan. The air was crisp and smoky from the cooking fires of the village. Our group of birding tourism professionals ate a sleepy breakfast, slurped down some rich, dark cafe, and boarded a small boat, headed west across the lake for a trip into the highlands.

My fellow travelers and our Guatemalan hosts, anticipating my special day, had already sung me "Happy Birthday" the previous night, but throughout the day, at every meal or snack, they again sang "Happy Birthday" or "Feliz cumpleanos a ti...." and produced some sort of cake or treat. I was flattered.

We spent the day with several stops for low-key birding, including Corazon del Bosque where we spent quality time with some pink-headed warblers, one of the world's most stunning birds. As we made the long drive back east to Guatemala City and our farewell dinner, we enjoyed a frosty cold Gallo cerveza. A guitar was dug out of the back of the bus and I played and we sang songs and laughed all the way home. I thought "what a great way to spend my birthday!"

Back at the Hotel Intercontinental, we were to clean up and meet in the lobby for dinner at 7:30. While waiting for the rest of our group to arrive, we went to the bar. At some point I heard music coming from out in the lobby, just outside the door to the bar. I went out to investigate--it was a jazz quartet, and they were kicking it with some tasty Bossa Nova. Flute, piano, bass, drums--all four players were Guatemalan musicians. It was sad that no one was listening except me. So when they finished the song, I clapped loudly and complimented them in my basic Spanish.

The flute player: "Thank you, amigo. You like jazz? We take requests!"
Me: "You guys sound great! How about "Black Orpheus?"
All: "Hey! Good song!"
Bassist: "You play jazz?"
Me: "Well, yes, I play in a trio in los Estados Unidos..."
Bassist: "You must sit in, amigo! Please?"
Me: "Oh, no I.... OK!"

We proceeded to kick out the jazz jams. Oh man was I on a high! I know music is the universal language, but this was actual proof of that assertion. These guys could really play, too. And I was surprised to see that they used the same jazz "fake" (music) book that we use for our regular gigs. It's a small world.
Such great guys! And good players, too! (Photos by Julie Z.)

We played "Black Orpheus" followed by "St. Louis Blues" and by the time we got halfway through the first song, our entire group had come out of the bar to see what was up. They started dancing and clapping and hooting and hollering at me. The band now had a really nice crowd of listeners! It felt so wonderful to hang with these really good musicians, to play for my birding pals, and to feed my soul with some music.

"I'm known for me solos!"
Two jazz bass players from different parts of the world.

Like I said, what a great way to spend my birthday.

Monday, March 27, 2006

What Spring Looks Like From Here

As we walked the kids out to the bus this morning, the chilly morning air nipped and gnawed at our bare hands and faces. A heavy frost came down last night here on Indigo Hill and, although you could feel that the sun would eventually win out, Old Man Winter's heavy hand still pressed upon us.

We stopped to admire our handy work from yesterday afternoon--new bluebird boxes with shiny, snake/coon-proof baffles swaying below them. The bluebirds are already building in two of them. We got them up just in time.

New Gilbertson bluebird boxes are replacing our old, worn-out boxes on our bluebird trails.

Back at the house, an unwelcome sign of spring appeared at the feeders--male brown-headed cowbirds. Not only are these guys pigs at the feeder, they utter these whiny whistles as they gesture threateningly to each other like some drunken and horny frat boys on Ladies Night at Hooters. The real trouble starts in a few weeks when the brown-headed cowgirls show up and the egg dumping starts. The only thing that makes me feel better about the cowbirds' arrival is thinking about the control traps set up around the Kirtland's warbler nesting grounds in Michigan. At least there, in the jack-pine forest, nesting birds have a fighting chance against these parasites. But I digress.....

The cowbirds are back. %$#@!

Blue spruce casting a frost shadow.

Frost stays wherever the sun does not shine. This is as true in nature as it is in life.

On my way home from work late this afternoon, I stopped by Newell's Run to see if any ducks were about and willing to be digiscoped. There were some very shy hooded mergansers and a blase pair of mallards.

Hiding hoodies at Newell's Run.
Tussilago farfara, also known as coltsfoot.

I took the dusty roads home and found one of spring's earliest wildflowers in these here parts, coltsfoot. In my misspent youth, my mom would always quiz us on the name of this small, round, yellow flower and Andy and I would make up names (though we knew it was coltsfoot). "Uh, it's kilt-thistle, right?" I'd say brightly. "No, it's milk-bonnet!" Andy would parry. My mom would bury her head in her hands.

Back to today....

When the kids got home, we snacked, then hit the concrete for a game of Midget 21. In this game we lower the hoop to its bottom setting, "midget height" Phoebe calls it. The normal rules of 21 apply--foul shots net 2 points, layups 1. You shoot as long as you keep making them. First one to 21 (but NOT over) wins. I cut Phoebe no slack and she kicks Daddy's butt about 50% of the time.

Phoebe shoots, she scores!
Is it still a dunk if the hoop is set on "midget?"

We then shifted over to NerfGolf, a game in which I hit tiny nerf golfballs into the air with a 9-iron and Phoebe tries to catch them or grab them (if she misses) before Chet Baker gets them and chews them to smithereens. We only lost a few tonight.

Nerf Golf. In our yard, the divots are an improvement.
Chet knows that Phoebe catches about 30% of the balls.
Fans lined the course to watch the NerfGolf competition.

All in all a good way to welcome in spring. Let's hope it does not snow tonight to crush these tender dreams we're nourishing of spring and its glorious arrival.
And the sun sets on another laff-a-minute day at Indigo Hill.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Around the Yard, Yesterday

Digiscoped male cardinal, taken through the north-facing studio window.

I was home all day yesterday while The Orchid Stalker journeyed to Cowtown to an orchid show with fellow OS Shila. The kids and I had a good day cooking, goofing off, and playing whiffleball (I cut them no slack--and there's no crying in whiffleball).

The morning started off with a nice visit from our turkey flock. Then, after launching The Orchid Stalker on her journey, I prepared breakfast for our overnight house guest, Paul Baicich. Paul was returning to his Maryland home from a wildlife conservation conference in Columbus (or Cowtown to some of us longtime Ohioans). He and I had a morning of interesting conversation about birds, conservation, and the thousands of people we know in common. Paul is a dedicated and well-informed bird conservationist. In past working lives he has been editor of Birding magazine (plus a variety of other roles for the American Birding Association), coordinator of The Swarovski Birding Community, and now, a consultant for the National Wildlife Refuge Association. One area of his current work is focusing on expanding the Duck Stamp program to include non-game birds. Imagine if you could buy a "duck" stamp with a prothonotary warbler on it!Paul Baicich (left) passed through Whipple. We added him to our yard list. Photo by Phoebe Thompson.

The evening before, while in the tower with Julie, Paul found our first fox sparrow of the spring. My barely identifiable photograph of this lovely bird is at right.

As we ate breakfast, Paul and I enjoyed quite a few birds, including courting red-tailed hawks over the orchard, and a line of five great blue herons migrating northward along the western horizon.

After Paul's departure I tried a bit of digiscoping from the house, with mixed results. Shooting through double-paned window glass only works when there's no light creating a reflection on the glass. Unfortunately it was too cold to shoot with the windows wide open, but I still managed to get a few shots. One technique I am trying to understand better is using the manual focus option. Unless the camera's auto-focus unit has a clear, unobstructed shot at the bird I'm trying to shoot, it often focused on the first object it encounters. This is usually anything by the bird. So I've got some amazing shots of tree branches, blades of grass, and leaves, with fuzzy birdlike objects in the background. Clearly I still have some work to do.The male American goldfinches are beginning to molt into their spring finery.

Here are some of the things seen and photographed around our yard yesterday.
Everyone loves the corn we put out for our turkeys, especially the blue jays.

Carolina chickadees dig our peanut feeder. The scold us the entire time while we fill the feeders.

Late March and early April give us an interesting confluence of birds. The juncos are still around and the chipping sparrows, thrashers, and gnatcatchers will be arriving any day.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Stalking the Woodcock

If you squint really hard you might be able to see the woodcock in this photo.

On Thursday night I got home from work early enough to enjoy the dusk performance of the American woodcocks in our meadow. There was a band of glowing evening light, peach and crimson, on the western horizon as the dominant meadow male began peenting. Our male woodcocks always begin peenting from down in the woods, perhaps near to where they have spent the day loafing and sleeping. Then, when the light is at exactly the right level, they fly up into our meadow, which lies along our horseshoe-shaped ridge, and begin their courtship displays.

On this particular evening I could hear six or seven different males peenting and twittering while flying. And four or five other birds giving the aggressive cak-cak-cak-cak call as they flew from one spot to another. Perhaps these were females letting the males know they were there. Or perhaps they were newly-arrived migrant males looking for a bit of meadow on which to perform.

I've spent a lot of hours watching male woodcocks do their thing. Some males peent four or five times in a row, then turn to face a new direction, eventually rotating back to their starting point. Other males rotate a little with every peent. And depending on how hot the mating scene is, the males may peent only a handful of times before launching into the air for a display flight. Or they may peent a few times, then probe for some earthworms for a few minutes before resuming their peenting.

Woodcocks are weird birds. They are a woodland shorebird---there's an oxymoron for you. Their eyes are placed high on their heads enabling them to scan for danger behind and above them even as they are probing deep into the ground for earthworms. Their bill has a flexible, sensitive tip, which, when it senses an earthworm, can flex open to grip the worm for extraction.

The evening light was perfect to try a bit of digiscoping, as soon as the male began the meadow portion of his performance. But as any photographer knows, if the light is perfect and you think "Hey the light is perfect! I'm going to get my camera!" That's guaranteed to alter the light to "crummy" almost immediately. Sure enough, as soon as I got the scope and camera out onto the deck, the light faded. It was as if someone had replaced the warm, luscious sunset with a 15-watt bulb from a greasy toaster oven. But, since few things have ever stopped me from taking crappy photographs, I persevered.

I stalked Mr. Woodcock quietly. He mostly ignored me, but timed his flights for the exact moment when I finally had all my gear positioned and all the right buttons/modes/etc. ready on my camera. By the time I got close enough for some decent photos, it was dark enough that Mr. Woodcock and I could barely see each other. It was then that I noticed how cold I was (no coat). And because nature always smiles on a bird watcher, it started to pour rain.

As I slogged the hundred or so yards back through the meadow to the house, I swear I heard, in between the woodcock's peents, the distinct sound of a sarcastic snicker.
I was close enough to hear the soft "whoop" sound the woodcock makes before each peent.
Their large eyes give this crepuscular creature excellent vision in low light conditions.

Friday, March 24, 2006

I Can Hardly Beer to Look

My Canadian pal Rondeau Ric McArthur normally sends along funny images and one-liners, but this time he's crossed the line.

Some years ago Marietta, Ohio where BWD's massive corporate skyscraper is located, was ridiculed by Dave Barry as the Cow Parts Capital of The U.S. because we suffered multiple roadblocks of accidentally dumped cow parts. The locals here were indignant.

Now Rondeau Ric sends along this tragic photo and I must say, I'll probably spend the weekend recovering from having seen it.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Quetzal Resplendent

I traveled to Costa Rica in 1995 with Julie and we had fabulous birding there. Loads of amazing lifers including scarlet macaw and keel-billed toucan and scarlet-rumped tanager and orange-collared manakin, but we were never in the cloud forest, so we had no chance to see the totem bird of that habitat, the resplendent quetzal.

This beautiful painting of the resplendent quetzal is by Mike DiGiorgio.

If I had a dollar for every time a non-birder, who had been to Costa Rica on a "Rainforest Safari" had asked me: "Oh, you've been to Costa Rica? Me too! Did YOU see the kwetzil?" I'd be a thousandaire. In 2005, on my first trip to Guatemala, where the national currency is the quetzal, the national futbol team is Los Quetzales, and where quetzals adorn everything from billboards to Mayan temples I was determined to see this mythic bird. Some of the non-birders on our trip saw it on our half-day trip to The Biotopo Quetzal Reserva. In fact, one Texan woman on the trip said to me, "Well I don't know why y'all bird watchers is so fared-up about seeing the qwotwal. I saw one. and it's just a l'il old green bird with a long tail, perched way up high in a tree!"

Gee, that's perfectly sums up the experience of seeing a resplendent quetzal. Thanks for sharing.

My friends Marco, Ana Cristina, and Hector went out of their way to help me find my quetzal. We spent most of two days at a small local ranch, tucked into the edge of the cloud forest, trying in vain to see the bird. No dice.

The quetzal is a weird bird and it's a member of the trogon family, perhaps the bird world's weirdest family. They are one of those birds that you see while flipping through a field guide, but you cannot really believe they are real, seeable birds. In fact for many birders, the quetzal remains a ghost bird---something that quests are made of. Not only do quetzals reside in the highest elevation could forest, they can either be incredibly hard to see, or incredibly easy and cooperative (especially when they are gorging on ripe fruits). Over and over again during the past year, my friend Hector "The Manakin" Castaneda sent me e-mails from Guatemala describing his encounters with three, four, five quetzals, calmly feeding on a fruiting tree over his head, oblivious to any nearby birders. So I was really excited when our Guatemala itinerary was changed to include a day in the cloud forest at Reserva Los Andes.

The cloud forest at Reserva Los Andes.

We started the day on large buses leaving the fancy hotel resort where we'd stay for a couple of days, heading to the highlands and Los Andes. Buses will not make it up the narrow, rough roads into the highlands, but four-wheel drive vehicles will, and this is how I ended up riding in the open bed of a pick-up with Keith Hansen and his wife, Patricia, laughing and telling bad jokes all the way up the mountain to Los Andes. While our butts took a beating riding on the metal truck beds, we did manage to spot some white-bellied chachalacas in the trees along the road.

Once at the top, in the driveway at Los Andes, we stepped down from our truck bed gingerly and met the enthusiastic owners and staff. Los Andes is practically its own small village. It's a farm, growing coffee, tea, and other agricultural products. But since it is so remote, the people who work at Los Andes also live there, so there is a school, a soccer field, a bakery, and other necessities.
The Los Andes staff lined up to greet us upon our arrival.

After a light late breakfast, we remounted our trucks and headed up the dusty farm roads to the entry point for the cloud forest. Several local guides accompanied us, including Claudia, a graduate student studying the resplendent quetzals at Los Andes, and Jesus, a Los Andes resident of many years. Claudia, Jesus, and others at Los Andes had been erecting nest boxes for the quetzals--several of which had been used in recent years. And although we were not yet in the breeding season for the quetzal, the males had already shown some territoriality.
Tea is one of the many crops being produced at Reserva Los Andes. This field is adjacent to the cloud forest trail.
As we dismounted from the trucks once again, we geared up to hike up into the cloud forest. Below us stretched agricultural fields for miles. And far to the west was the gleaming Pacific ocean. Our focus was on the dark cloud forest where avian riches untold awaited us. Just a dozen steps along the path into the forest, the light dimmed considerably and we heard the cries of a black hawk-eagle overhead. Although the path was wide and the grade reasonable, we stopped every 50 feet or so to rest and catch our breath, the altitude getting the better of us momentarily. Another 100 yards and we heard the call.
Our group of quetzal seekers included several birders with lots of tropcial experience.

Impressively huge trees dominate the cloud forest in Guatemala. It's no wonder it can be hard to see a quetzal.

I remembered the hoarse, cuckoo-like call from a year ago, when we'd spent a hour trying in vain to spot a calling male quetzal in the top of a bromeliad-covered tree. The bird we were hearing now was close--maybe 200 yards into the forest. Jesus motioned to us that we get closer to the bird's location by simply following the curving path, so we did. Alvaro Jaramillo, one of our trip's participants, and a trip leader for Field Guides, asked if he could play a quetzal call to try to lure our bird in. Once we settled in farther along the trail, Alvaro played the called just twice and the male responded, coming closer.

For a while, Alvaro and I thought the only quetzal we'd see was on the Guatemalan currency.

Simon Thompson, another birding tour company representative, shouted out that he'd found the bird. He grabbed my scope, trained it on the quetzal, and beckoned those of us for whom the quetzal was a life forward to see our bird. I stepped to the scope and saw a dream come true. Greener and brighter than I'd imagined, the bird was perched on a thick horizontal branch about 50 yards away. Although the male quetzal is colorful and has those familiar showy tail feathers, it did not stickout in the cloud forest. In fact the opposite was true. The bird blended in almost perfectly. We were lucky that Simon had spotted it when he did. The male quetzal called again and then flew. I refound it, in a spot of sun, but it flew again just as I centered it in the scope. Now, its calls were from farther off. We let the bird go about its business and we began to celebrate quietly. I did an impromptu jig along the forest path, silently screaming YEAH! YEAH! OH HELL YEAH! to the heavens.
The view into the cloud forest from the precise spot where I saw my one and only resplendent quetzal.

I had seen my most-wanted bird of the trip. And I could still hear it calling. Oh I was happy. Everyone in our group knew how much this sighting meant to me and they all congratulated me with big smiles and high fives. I was not able to digiscope this exquisite creature, but the image of my first quetzal is forever burned in my mind's eye. I radioed Marco, leading another group on the far side of the forest, and I could hear the happiness and relief in his voice that I and all of us had seen the quetzal.
Jesus and I drank a watery toast to our good fortune with the birds at Los Andes, especially the quetzal.
Los Andes features a quetzal viewing tower, though climbing it is not for the faint of heart.
Opposite the quetzal viewing tower are several fruiting trees. Our local guides told us that when the fruits are ripe, and the quetzals are eating them, the birds are almost tame.

But our day a fabulous cloud-forest birding was just beginning. Farther up the trail we came to a set of rough-hewn benches in a small clearing. This was the stake-out place for one of Central America's rarest tanagers, the azure-rumped tanager, sometimes called Cabanis' tanager. After waiting for an hour or more below the fruiting tree where the birds are regularly seen, a feeding flock flew into the tree. As we picked through the birds high above us, we called them out. The light was horrible, looking into a milky-gray overcast sky. Soon a trio of the tanagers appeared and we whistled for the rest of our group to join us. Everyone got decent looks at the speckled breast of this odd tanager, a key field mark for the species. This bird was a lifer for nearly everyone, including a couple of our Guatemalan friends.
Simon, Hugo, and I worked hard to find the azure-rumped tanagers. We all got bad cases of tanager neck shortly thereafter.
Claudia helped us find our way around Los Andes, providing lots of insight into the local bird populations.

And although this bird might have been rarer, or harder to see than the resplendent quetzal, there was no doubt in my mind which bird made this day memorable. ¡Viva el quetzal!
We ended the day back at the main house, gazing out over the foothills and to the gleaming Pacific Ocean in the distance.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

All Hail Pale Male!

Photo by Shila "Shabeels" Wilson, Wellness Unlimited.

My vote for "Man of the Year" goes to Pale Male, the famed red-tailed hawk of New York City.

Last year, he lost his home.

He did not worry about it.
He immediately began looking elsewhere.
Got his home back (thanks to an outpouring of support from his fellow New Yorkers).
Retained Lola's interest (and she is HOT!)
Rebuilt his/their nest.

His home faces Central Park, and he DOES NOT PAY RENT!
He eats rats. And not just any rats, New York City rats!

This dude totally ROCKS!

Way to go Pale Male!

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Pity the Poor Woodcock

Photo by Face from Slate Run Metro Park in Ohio.

Oh it's such a bummer for our woodcock tonight. We're getting that snowstorm that pig-piled on top of the Midwest (though not nearly the accumulation) and I'm worried about our woodcock. Imagine if you had to make your living by probing for earthworms in the wet soil of a meadow or woodland. Then add an inch or two of snow on top of that. Bumola.
The view tonight out our downstairs windows, toward where the turkeys will be feeding tomorrow morning.
Sad night for woodcock. Good night for earthworms.

Our recently returned turkey flock is feeling its oats and eating lots of cracked corn. A couple of years ago, we actually got video footage of a gobbler treading upon, then mounting a hen. Gotta love that farmyard porn--we made millions on the Web from that video, "Gobblers Gone Wild!"
Let the wild corn-fed rumpus begin!

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Song in My Head

Tonight the song in my head is:
Must I Paint You a Picture?
by Billy Bragg

You can download this wonderful song for free from the official Billy Bragg website, here.

I first heard Billy Bragg in London, where I was living as a student in 1983. Amid all the synthesizer pop of the Big Hair bands of the early 1980s, BB's spare sound (just him singing to a distorted electric guitar) really stood out. My friend Richard turned me on to Billy Bragg's music and I've followed his music career ever since. He's got a new box set out this month, sort of a best-of collection.

And if you are someone who likes Woody Guthrie AND Wilco, check out the Bragg/Wilco collaboration albums called Mermaid Avenue where these talented folks finished and recorded some of Woody Guthrie's compositions. Here's an NPR story about it.

Now back to The Song in My Head..... Billy, play us out! Goodnight everyone!

Must I paint you a picture
about the way that I feel?
You know my love for you is strong, girl.
You know my love for you is real.
Must I paint you a picture?

A Flag Makes Me Think

I took this photo of a long wall, painted in American flag elements, in a Chicago restaurant. It was a fascinating use of the flag theme, and like good art and good music, it made me think. Lately I've been wondering if we are experiencing the long, slow demise of The United States. Are we going to be like England, Spain, France, and other fallen-from-fame superpowers? The clues pointing to such a future are all around us, if we take the time to read the newspapers and open our eyes to the world beyond our borders.

Tonight I went to a parents' meeting on the other side of our county to learn about a state competition for elementary school students. It's called Future Problem Solving, and a team from Phoebe's school (including Phoebe and four other kids) was selected to participate on the Ohio-wide state competition level. The teams are presented a problem and are challenged to come up with a solution which they have to organize, write up, and present as a play.

Phoebe is really into it and I'm glad. We need our children to be problem solvers, because I'm not sure we're doing such a great job these days.

The world we live in is changing so rapidly, I wouldn't be surprised if, in the future, the concept of being a superpower itself became outmoded. My main worry is the real-world problems we're leaving to future generations.

Okay, I am done. You can take the soapbox now. You DO know what a soapbox is, don't you?

As much as I dug the American flag motif on the wall, the overall vibe of the restaurant was somewhat compromised by the presence of two other objets d'art: Reddy Watt and a scary cast-iron clown. Clowns don't usually freak me out, but this one did.
Reddy Watt, your happy friend from the Electric Co-op, who can electrocute you or, apparently, hit you with a hammer.

And to this day, no one knows whether this clown is laughing or crying, shouting, yodeling, or yawning. There are some things in this world that should be left unknown.

Someone stop me before I blog again.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Verse for a March Sunset

Ozone sunset fire
fades to deepest indigo.
Peent goes the woodcock

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Ivorybill: Curiouser and Curiouser

Image of a male ivory-billed woodpecker specimen from The Field Museum in Chicago.

Well, the code of polite silence about the ivory-billed woodpecker has finally broken among some of North America's leading birding experts. Both David Sibley and Kenn Kaufman have spoken out this past week concerning their doubts about bird ID'd as an ivorybill in the famous/infamous accidental video captured by David Luneau.

The four seconds of Luneau's digital video footage have been analyzed, scrutinized, criticized, and lionized by everyone interested in the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker. It was used by the Cornell Lab/Nature Conservancy folks as proof positive of the species' existence. Now David Sibley and a handful of colleagues, in an article in the journal Science, are flatly declaring that the same video actually shows a pileated woodpecker. And that the original discoverers were, to put it kindly, mistaken in their identification. See links below.

Sibley, Kaufman, Jackson, and others are asking the right, hard questions. But there is a rumbling bit of backlash against them, almost like they are somehow being unpatriotic. (Where have we heard that before?)

There are so many things at stake here--including millions of dollars in conservation funding, personal and professional glory, and the potential for the greatest conservation success story of all time. But emotions are running so high that critical, logical thinking may itself become extinct. The birding community is slowly dividing into camps: The True Believers, The Really-Want-to Believers, The Mostly Dubious, and The Non-believers. Where do you stand?

I must admit that I started out in the first category, but have drifted, over time, into the Dubious category, mostly because no other confirmation of the bird's/birds' existence has come to light. Thousands of hours have been spent in The Big Woods of Arkansas by woodpecker experts, master woodspeople, ornithologists, top-notch avid birders, and we have not much to show for it. Certainly if there was any kind of definitive proof (a still photo, better video footage), I believe the Cornell/TNC gang would have made this public immediately. It is the lack of any such proof, combined with the intensely controlled search process, limited access to the area, and "ownership" of the species has placed the entire ivorybill "scene" in an increasingly harsh light.

This is going to be a very interesting story to follow in the days and months to come. I have a feeling that we may only be seeing the beginning of the debate. I just hope that all the positive press that bird watching has gotten during the past year is not turned into "Check out the crazy birders!" coverage because we are too busy scratching each other's eyes out.

There's no doubt we ALL want the species to still be extant. There's also no doubt that we need better proof of its continued existence. Let's hope that proof comes soon...

Some linky-dinks for your perusing enjoyment:

Sibley, et al in Science Magazine
Sibley in The New York Times
Sibley on NPR

Kenn Kaufman on OhioBirds Listserv, writing about a South American relative of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Download a pdf of the Jerome Jackson, et al article from The Auk.

Read the Cornell Lab's take on the oddball, leucistic pileated seen in the Big Woods.

The Ivorybill Skeptic roosts and blogs here and offers many links to support his points.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Chicago Flower Show

We are at The Chicago Flower Show, set to give a bird gardening talk later today. Last night we visited the show to get the feel of things and Zick went into an orchid stupor. In fact she became The Orchid Stalker. This is just one of the many titles she legally holds, among them: The Dog Lady of Whipple, and Blogzilla.
The Orchid Stalker at one of the more impressive Chicago Flower Show booths.

I must admit, though I am no weedpicker, that the orchids are pretty amazing plants. I enjoyed seeing the different forms, shapes, colors. And Zick says that this isn't even a FANCY orchid show, since it's a general flower and gardening show.

Some of the orchid force me immediately to quote Austin Powers.

The show is being held at the end of The Navy Pier, a long, um, pier jutting into Lake Michigan full of interesting ways to spend your tourist dollar. Perhaps the most interesting thing on the Navy Pier is a display of a huge collection of stained glass windows. Leaving the Flower Show we spent quite a bit of time ogling and photographing these amazing works of glass art.

I did not know that Glenn Close played the harp.

The Four Seasons: Winter

The Four Seasons: Spring

The Four Seasons: Summer

The Four Seasons: Fall

Thursday, March 16, 2006

I Should Have Gnome

Canada, in the interest of its own national security, has posted a series of welcoming border gnomes at key crossing points along the border with the United States.

Clearly these gnomes are being used as part of a national Shock and Awe campaign against Canada's more southerly neighbor. And speaking strictly for myself, the campaign is a major success. I have cancelled all of my trips to Canada to buy prescription drugs (though I may still mailorder some birding steroids--the ones that help you become an expert at nocturnal flight calls of migrants in just one week).

Good birding to all my friends, to all my supposed friends, and especially to all of my imaginary friends, particularly to my imaginary Canadian friends. Long may you run, eh?

Special thanks, as ever, to Rondeau Ric McArthur for this image of the stalwart Canuck Gnome. I should have gnome....

They're Baaaack!

Our turkeys returned this morning after a year-long hiatus. The bucketful of cracked corn flung under the Virginia pines finally proved too alluring to them, and they honored us with their presence.

Soon the males will be strutting, gobbling loudly, and displaying. And the females will be ignoring them as usual.

Some things never change, no matter the season, no matter the species.

Boundless Fame

Well, I guess my fame has reached its apex. While relieving myself in the men's restroom at The Louisville Nature Center, I saw a poster promoting my appearance at a bird walk that same morning, strategically placed just above the wee-wee station.

Could I be the Paris Hilton of Birding? Survey says....YES!

I guess that's why the refreshments at the bird walk featured Krispy Kreme donuts, and not that fakey grocery store crapola....Fame certainly has its benefits.

I'd like to thank all the little people who make so much of this possible....Thanks l'il peeps!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

It's Pronounced Lou-vul

A northern mockingbird photographed (digiscoped) at the Louisville Nature Center.

The Zick and I were invited to speak to The Beckham Bird Club of Louisville, Kentucky for their annual banquet, held last night. We talked Carol Besse, our BBC contact, into letting us perform our "Music of the Birds" program rather than one of our other more intellectually stimulating programs. Things went really well and the club seemed to dig the program (in spite of my totally choking on the changes for Woody Guthrie's "Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key." Duh!). More on that in a moment.

The journey to our Louisville show was as much fun as the actual show itself. We started off by visiting my bestest buddy John Kogge in Oxford, Ohio. Julie was getting her ivory-billed woodpecker painting framed by John at his biz, Frame & Save.
John Kogge and Julie focusing their energy on framing JZ's ivory-billed and pileated ID plate at Frame & Save in Oxford, Ohio.

Sunset over High Street, Oxxford, Ohio.

I first met John in 1981 through our mutual friend Mary, who told me I needed to meet this guy she knew who had my same sick sense of humor and who played music. At the time I was playing in a dead-end frat-rock band called The Shades (it was the 80's) and trying to play as many gigs as possible. John and I hit it off and I joined his acoustic group The Scratch Gravel Band. We played once a week for the next several years, but it was at least six months before we realized we had the SAME birthday, March 3. John, however, is 12 years my senior. These days, when I see him, I always ask him to treat for lunch since he qualifies for the Golden Buckeye Discount.
George Peppard plays the bouzouki.
From Frame & Save we went to John's house for the night, where we enjoyed (and continued to be reminded of for the next several days) John's jambalaya, lots of laughs with John, his wife Heather, and their two-year-old son Jesse (a copyright holder on cuteness). Jesse is a chow hound and immediately took to Julie, who helped him scarf down his dinner. Catching up with John and Heather was fab, and the Kogges and I stayed up until the small hours listening to music on my laptop and cracking wise.
John Kogge's Johnbalaya. Contact the EPA immediately.
Chowhound Jesse Kogge and proud parents John & Heather (above).

On Tuesday morning we blew out of Oxford town headed straight south to Louisville, which I now understand, having visited there, is pronounced Lou-vul. We were due in Lou-vul by noonish to apppear on the local TV station's news program (BT3) and to be interviewed by the local NPR affiliate (JZ). I am always amazed to watch a TV show from backstage. The one I was appearing on was the noon news at WHAS-TV, and the noontime anchor, Rachel, was a total pro. Besides reading the news, she also conducted mini-interviews with about a dozen folks, threw it over to the plastic weather guy, and did voiceovers for the taped news footage.

My appearance was designed to promote a community bird walk Julie and I were leading the morning after our bird club program. I thought I did OK, but Julie and Carol thought I did not smile enough. Hmmm...I forgot that being on TV is like being on stage--everything you do have to be slightly exaggerated. Smiles have to be BIG SMILES. I could only wonder at how tired Rachel must be at the end of the day.
Rachel was kind enough not to ask ALL the questions about my bald spot.

Next we high-tailed it to a quick lunch where Carol regaled us with stories about some of the touring authors she has hosted her really cool independent bookstores, Carmichael's. The best story concerned her hosting of a book signing by Gene Simmons from KISS. All you need to know about this guy he tells in his own words in his famous interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. Or listen to the Al Franken story about Gene Simmons. Hilarious.
Carmichael's Book Store. Two convenient Louisville locations to serve you. Ask about their countdown clocks.

Next it was across the street to a new building that houses what must be the nicest NPR studios in the US. This is where Julie was to be interviewed by Heidi Caravan, show host and programming director for WFPL-FM. Julie and Heidi started talking about Newfoundland, Heidi's homeland, and a place Julie visited for a six-week sketching trip way back when, and that was it--the gals talked excitedly for almost an hour.
Zick needs a cup of hot water and a brandy snifter of green M&M's or she's not going ON.
Obviously, the hot water and M&M's were forthcoming, because the magic is being made inside the recording studio.
Soon we were back on the road, headed out to do a bit of light birding with some of the local bird club folks at the farm of Brainard Palmer-Ball's family, where we were also spending the night (beats the heck out of a hotel). We had a lovely hour or so of walking the fields and streams with Brainard and the club members--we saw a few nice spring birds, loads of early spring wildflowers, and a few salamanders, including a zig-zag salamander new for both Julie and me.
The zig zag salamander. Thanks Brainard!

Then it was time to prep for the evening's show which was held at a restaurant banquet facility. The venue was perfect for music, and our show, pictures of natural scenes, birds, people (including our kids) and creatures set loosely to our live singing and playing, went off without anyone screaming, breaking any bones, or catching on fire. So we count it as a success. Carol sold some books, we all ate too much good food, and the sun set on another day for Bill of the Birds.Zick live and on stage before the Beckham Bird Club.
This morning we converged on The Louisville Nature Center for a 90-minute bird walk. But we had so much fun (and surprisingly good birds including Cooper's hawk and yellow-bellied sapsucker) that the walk lasted three hours! After a good deli lunch and some book buying at one of Carol's stores, we hit the road for Ohio at 2 pm, taking the southern route through eastern KY and western WV.
Birding with Louisvillians at The Louisville Nature Center.

We decided we really loved Louisville, sorry Lou-vul. And we hope to go back again soon. Great people there, and a lot more to enjoy than we had time for.

It's nice to be home. But in 12 hours we leave for a flight to Chicago--the kids did not take this news well. We'll only be gone overnight, so we're looking forward to a relaxing weekend at home.
The first comma of spring.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Gifts of Birds, Words

Sharing copies of the Kaufman Guide (in Spanish) with several of our Guatemalan friends and local birding guides was really enjoyable. Here Julie and I are posing with, (from left) Hugo Enriquez Toledo, Jesus (local Laguna Chikabal guide), Kenneth Alvarado of INGUAT, and Jesus (our other local Laguna Chikabal guide).

Among the highlights of our recent adventure in Guatemala was the chance to give a few gifts to friends new and old in that wonderful country. I traveled to Guatemala loaded down with copies of BWD, a few of our books, some BWD bino-harnesses, and eight copies of the Spanish-language version of the Kaufman Guide to Birds of North America. I intended to give these Kaufman guides to some of the local Guatemalan bird guides we encountered during the trip.

In Guatemala, a bird watcher can use the excellent Howell and Webb Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Central America. But it is among the heaviest and bulkiest of any field guide I've ever encountered. Carry Howell and Webb up one volcano and you'll get quite a work out. Many Guatemalan birders carry the Peterson Guide to the Birds of Mexico. But both these books give short shrift to the many neotropical migrants that winter in Guatemala--"our" warblers, thrushes, vireos, and so on. This is where the Kaufman Guide's images and information (in Spanish!) fill a gap. While the Kaufman Guide does not include most of the birds that breed south of the US/Mexico border, it does give excellent photographic representation of our neotropical migrants. And it solves the problem that many Guatemalan bird guides have in communicating about specific species with visiting birders: the Latin and Spanish names are included.

We were surprised at how familiar our Guatemalan birding friends were with Latin names of birds--far more so than most of us. This is where flipping through the pocket-sized Kaufman Guide is useful.

Perhaps some day Guatemalan bird watchers will have their own guide--one that is comprehensive, up-to-date, in Spanish and English, and portable. Until then, consider taking a couple of extra copies of the Kaufman Guide in Spanish with you on your tropical birding adventures in Latin America. It makes a useful, interesting, and memorable thank-you gift.

I had a hard time choosing where and when and to whom to give the Kaufman Guides. It would have been easy to give away 50.
Our local guides at Reserva Los Andes. Jesus on the right helped me to find the resplendent quetzal in the nearby cloud forest. He was also a field assistant to Anne LaBastille when she was studying the quetzal in Guatemala.

The families that work at Los Andes growing coffee, tea, and other products also live there. The local school children all gathered to welcome us and to sing us a song. It was so sweet that most of our group was overwhelmed by emotion.

Asked to say a few words to the children, I praised them for their beautiful land and beautiful voices. And asked them to watch over the birds for us, because we and many of our bird-watching friends would greatly enjoy coming back to visit them and their birds again. I presented the school's principal with my last remaining copy of the Kaufman guide. I told the children that my wife was inspired to become a bird artist when she looked through books of bird paintings as a young girl. I hoped that when I come back to Los Andes, that I would get to see some of their art depicting the local birds.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Undeniable Spring

Our male tree swallow returned to his favorite perching spot on our electric wire. He was several days earlier than in years past.

More signs of spring's irresistible and imminent arrival (an arrival as regular as the Beaujolais signs at the wine store, but far less cheesy) included greater yellowlegs at The Wilds on Friday, our tree swallow sitting at his fave spot on our electric wire, two pairs of wood ducks on the neighboring farm pond (I would SO love to have a pond here at Indigo Hill), flocks of blackbirds swirling in pastures, and at least six woodcock heard at once from our front yard.
A blackbird flock swirling and settling in an open space in Bonn, Ohio, a suburb of Whipple.

Tonight the inky black sky is washed with gray filmy clouds and a full moon, which is certainly the Woodcock Moon because its brightness keeps the males calling and doing display flights long after they should have stopped and refocused their attentions on sucking earthworms out of the soggy soil.

This time of year is so wonderfully full of newness, rebirth, and life bubbling to the surface. I am slurping it up.The woodcock moon as observed through the branches of our huge pear tree (which annually bestows upon us thousands of inedible pears).

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Song in My Head

Today's posts here on BOTB appear to be taking on a distinctly boomerangish tint--sent flying into the air once in the past, they are whizzing back to us like that famed weapon of the aboriginal-Australians.

The Giant Things are back, and now--DUCK!--here comes The Song in My Head.

The song in my head today is
Television Light
by Marshall Crenshaw
from his album 447

This song rolls liltingly and melodically along propelled by fuzz rhythm guitar and a great fiddle riff. Marshall C. is one of our most underrated songwriters and guitarists. This song is about remorse over causing hurt to a lover--something we can all relate to--but it's an implicitly upbeat tune.

Special thanks to our music buddy, Jeff Stoodt, for sharing "447" with us.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Return of Giant Things

It is with great joy that I announce the return of Giant Things to Bill of the Birds.

Today's entry comes from our birding friend Jack Cole, from California, a well-traveled birder with an eye for interesting digital pictures. Recently, Jack was in Maine, looking for his life purple sandpiper (still waiting to know if you got the "purp", Jack.) and he found this giant thing, a lobster claw.

Jack wrote of this encounter:
There were giant lobsters EVERYWHERE! This one had to be the biggest however, since the rest of it was apparently buried underground!--Jack

Thanks Jack! Imagine the size of the container of drawn butter that goes with this lobster! It might nudge my bad cholesterol number into four digits!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Major Signs of Spring

Right now, as I sit here in my office at Bird Watcher's Digest, a male is screaming from the roof of this building. He sounds mad and not a little insane. Several other males are screaming, too. There must be several females around. Is this an episode of Cops?

No. It's just the arrival of spring.

The killdeer have returned to our gravel roof and their wild cries and spiraling flights are not ignoreable. The lead-gray skies may seem dreary, but there's a palpable cheer in the kill-dee, kill-dee calls of the male killdeer as they tussle over territory. In June we'll look in the parking lot for the tiny puffballs--baby killdeer, just hours old, having leaped off our roof and floated to a safe landing on the ground. Then can fend for themselves almost right away, but the parents will still keep watch over them. Calling and doing their distraction display whenever one of us accidentally gets too close.

At the feeder today I noticed a male red-winged blackbird and a common grackle--two other very accurate predictors of spring's arrival. Robins? They're with us all winter. But they aren't officially a sign of spring for us until they start singing their evening songs. At our house the robins are often accompanied by the sounds of whiffle bats hitting whiffle balls or basketballs being dribbled on concrete. Kids laughing and shouting, burgers being flipped on the grill...

It's springy enough to be outside. There's a smell of new earth on the evening air. It's light until 6:45! The spring peepers are peeping! And the woodcock males are peenting and twittering and spiraling in the gloaming above our still-brown meadow.

Spring, and the sweet rebirth of everything, is about to burst forth.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

My Horned Guan Adventure

I have stalked and seen the horned guan. Oooh. It feels good just to say it.

Looming over the shore of Guatemala's Lake Atitlan, where the Atitlan grebe once lived, until its extinction in the late 1980s, stands Volcan San Pedro. On San Pedro's steep slopes facing the lake, above the cultivated patches of corn, coffee, and avocados, lies a bit of cloud forest. It was here that a horned guan and I met.

But it was no easy bird to see. In fact, the hike up the volcano to the horned guan's preferred habitat was incredibly strenuous. For those of us not used to the thinner air at 9,000 feet, breathing was difficult. And for those of us who spend most of our waking hours behind a desk, feeling the burn in our calves and thighs as we climbed a long, steep trail was quite an experience. If birding is ever added to the X-Games, climbing to see the horned guan should be the main event.

To be fair to our hosts from Guatemala, they had warned us about the trail and the climb. Horned guans are deep mountain forest birds. To see them you must seek them where they live. It is this preference for remote highland habitat and their rather odd preference for living in the trees rather than on the ground that makes the horned guan one of the most sought-after birds in Central America. Oh, and they taste really good, according to local hunters. Not to worry, the guans in this parque are protected.

We left our quaint and cozy Hotel Tolliman before dawn and embarked on our taxi boat which whisked us across Lake Atitlan to the town of San Pedro. Here a convoy of small buses and trucks carried us to the visitors' center at the Parque Ecologico de Volcan San Pedro at the base of the volcano. This is an extinct volcano, so we had no worries about melting our hiking boots on red-hot lava.

We started the climb up the path about an hour after dawn, but the birding was so good that we made little progress for the first hour. Solitaires, wrens, familiar warblers (mostly Tennessees, Wilson's, and Townsend's) several darting hummingbirds and scores of other species stopped us along the single-track path. The path was so well-used that in many places there was an inch or more of fine dust which floated in the air with each footfall. Time and time again we'd hear the cry "Coming through!" from one of our group, and we'd all step off the path to let a local farmer pass by heading up the mountain with tools, or down the mountain loaded with a harvest of wood, coffee, or corn.

Soon we began to get the feeling that if we did not get moving, we might miss the guan, which was reported to be most seeable between the hours of eight and nine in the morning. Our progress was necessarily slow, but the day was glorious with cool air and brilliant sun shafts poking through the forest canopy. We passed field after field as we ascended the volcano. We gnawed the tasty flesh off of ripe maroon coffee fruits, spitting out the bean inside. We depleted our water supply.

After a short break at the mirador, an overlook about halfway to the top of the volcano, where we ate a bit of breakfast and resupplied ourselves with liquids, we hit the trail again, climbing with a slow determination. We began making jokes about the guan.

"Gwhen are we guanna see a guan?"
"Guan wit your bad self!"
"I guan Youuuuu, to show me the way... Everyday!"
"One more bad pun and I'll send you to Guan-tanamo!"

We laughed when we had enough breath to do so. Soon we found ourselves above the patches of agriculture and entering mature woodland. Our energy level and mood lifted.

Here are some notes I made later that day about the events of the following half hour:

After hiking all morning and well into the afternoon up the serious grade of Volcan San Pedro, we hear a whistle from 150 yards up the path, and the crackle of the small FRS radio unit in Marco's hand. The horned guan had been sighted, oddly by one of the local policemen assigned to accompany us. The news flashes like lightning through our group, now strung out along several hundred yards of jungle path. We in turn whisper-shout and whistle downslope to those trailing us. Pandemonium ensues.

I burst into a Frankensteinlike run up the path to the guan spot. But I realize almost immediately that this is extremely hard given my weary, leadlike legs, lightly sprained right ankle, and difficulty in breathing in the thin air at this altitude. So it's 10 steps at full speed, each gaining me about 12 inches in altitude and three feet of forward progress, then 20 seconds of gasping and resting my burning legs.

Somehow I get to the spot, my chest heaving with each deep breath, the sweat pouring down my face. My binocs go right to my eyes and I aim them in the direction that our companions Simon and Martin are pointing. There, on a horizontal branch below the canopy, I spy the large black and white bird sitting still about 50 yards into the forest. He is positively prehistoric in appearance. Black as night on the back, with a white chest and belly. My labored breath combined with my pounding pulse and overall exhilaration make it nearly impossible to hold my binocs still. The guan, sitting still, bounces up and down in my view as I fight to control my breathing.

My friend grabs my scope and trains it on the bird. Quiet shouts of joy and gasps follow, but the guan moves before I can get onto the scope myself. The bird reappears slightly to the right, and I get another good binoc look.

I dance a jig and silently shout a prayer of thanks to the birding gods. Quiet high-fives and sweaty hugs, and a few kisses go all 'round the group. Others in our large party are still struggling madly up the rocky, dusty path to see this rarest of all Guatemalan birds. And we agree to let them charge past us up the hill, where the newly minted celebrity policemen are once again searching for the bird.

Those of us in the first wave to see the guan cannot believe our luck. If you can possibly earn a life bird, this might be one that we've earned. We all sink to the ground along the edge of the path and rest, happy to the point of giddiness.

The bird is refound another hundred yards up the path and I know I MUST try to digiscope it. The primary obstacles to this are the fact that all the ground slopes at a 45 degree angle and the path is only wide enough for one person in most places. Plus, the guan is deep in the jungle where a million vines, branches, and leaves block most views.

I lurch up the path to where the bird is showing itself once again. My entire body aches, I ponder what my heart attack will feel like when it comes. This last run nearly kills me. I stop, panting just six steps from a relatively flat portion of the trail from which five other birders are training their optics on the same horned guan.

"Just six more steps, dude! Come ON!" comes the call of encouragement from Alvaro, as he sticks out his arm and helps me climb the rest of the way. I start trying to catch my breath right away, so I don't scare the bird. He is MUCH closer this time, and I quickly set up my scope to try to get a few documentary digiscoping shots.

I am thrilled. The guan sits for 15 minutes and everyone who makes it this high up Volcan San Pedro, is rewarded with a leisurely view of the bird. I snap a dozen photos of varying quality. Then as the group, one after another, heads down the volcano, I sit down to perform a little ritual before I leave this memorable, sacred spot. Alone for the moment, leaning back with my aching torso against a tree, I write a few words on a small piece of paper, light it on fire, and watch it burn itself out on the dusty path.

Below me the waters of Lake Atitlan shimmer in the late afternoon sun. My heart rises to soar beyond the distant horizon, like the smoke from my tiny fire and the fires of the Guatemalan farmers cooking their tortillas by their small mountainside fields. I close my eyes and drift into a dream.


At my first glance through my binoculars, the guan seemed to be staring directly at me, its black-and-white eye giving it a surprised, yet blank look. I shuddered, whether from the excitement of finding this rare bird, or from being a bit surprised at its odd appearance. This is a remarkable weird-looking bird. And I feel utterly blessed to have seen it.

Following are some of the day's memorable images.
Our party was escorted up the volcano by two policemen from the village of San Pedro. They were the ones who spotted the horned guan first. Neither one had binoculars.... Later, they received a heartfelt gratuity from us for their help and good eyes.

Up, up, up we climbed, stopping every 10 or 20 steps to rest and catch our breath. I found myself wondering how many years these old cut paths had been used by the local villagers.

Despite the strenuous hike, Julie enjoyed the vistas of Lake Atitlan far below us.

Several dozen local farmers passed us heading up or down. This fellow is carrying wood for cooking, heading down the volcano to the village. It's a bundle suspended from a strap across his forehead.

The exact spot where I photographed the guan. He is the tiny dark spot at the center of this image. Please scroll down for a better image of this odd bird.

Hugo, BT3, and Marco celebrate the guan sighting. Afterwards, we asked Marco, one of Guatemala's best bird watchers, what he thought our chances were to see the guan, when we started out. "About 5 percent" he said. We were SO lucky.

Julie, Martin Reid, and Simon Thompson celebrate our initial sighting of the guan.

Tired to the point of falling over, but happy to have made the effort to seek the horned guan on Volcan San Pedro. Now came the long trek down the volcano, which we renamed The San Pedro Thighmaster.

Heading down the volcano after everyone got great looks at the horned guan. The walk down seemed much shorter....

Back at the entrance to the Parque Ecologico, we collapsed into a post-guan siesta.

My best digiscoped image of the horned guan, a dream-come-true bird.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Hauling the Scope

"You're not hauling that thing up the mountain are you? You must be mad!"

This is a comment I heard more than once, in a variety of accents, during our Guatemala adventure. Well, perhaps I AM mad, or at least a little obsessed about getting good looks at birds. But I almost always haul a spotting scope along on my birding trips, treks, and tours. Yes it can be hard on the back, shoulders, arms, hands (the hand-pinching tripod is a birding standard) legs, feet, and other parts of the body to haul a spotting scope along on a hike, but all it takes is one or two cooperative birds and all doubts about the scope-hauler's sanity disappear.

My four primary reasons for the always lugging a scope along are:

1. If you need a scope for a tough ID, a distant mystery bird, or to document a rarity, and you do not have a scope, you will hate yourself.

2. Digiscoping. Hard to do without a spotting scope. I am newly re-immersed in digiscoping and find it to be exhilarating.

3. I spot birds. Scope them. Julie sketches. This scores me major points (if the birds cooperate) and forwards the global cause of bird art.

4. Finally, my main reason for hauling my scope along: sharing great looks at birds with others. This just gives me a huge buzz, especially when sharing the scope with non-birders, beginning bird watchers, or kids. It's also very cool to show a lifer to an avid bird watcher through your scope. This is how I've heard some of the most colorful expletives ever uttered by birders.

My back is still a little tight and sore from my 10 days of scope hauling, but I would not trade the looks, pictures, and smiles we got for anything.

Here are a few of the scope-related images from our Guatemala journey (please note: I will feature digiscoped images in future posts).

Special thanks to Swarovski Optik, NA, and Clay Taylor for the loaner 65mm scope. This significantly lightened our load, since the 80mm I own is much heavier and bulkier.

I'd also like to thank Julie, Simon, Marco, Hugo, and Hector for helping to carry the scope along the way.
Scoping a bird in the canopy of the rainforest reminded me of those energetic games of Twister in my youth. We were looking at the Cabanis' (azure-rumped) tanager at Los Andes. Given the crummy overcast light conditions, we could only make out the birds' spotted breasts with my spotting scope.

At Corazon del Bosque, an armed guard (there to prevent villagers from cutting firewood in the reserve) enjoyed looking at a male hooded grosbeak.
Birding Tikal with Marco (left) and Hector (right) was greatly enhanced by having two scopes.

Simon Thompson, of Ventures, Inc, used our scope to sort out the identity of a Hammond's flycatcher at Cerro Alux.

Ana Cristina Prem of INGUAT, organized our trip and was along on every birding hike. Here she's looking at a horned guan on Volcan San Pedro.

Julissa, la Pajarera, scoped out a roadside hawk at Takalik.

At Tikal, our scopes drew a crowd while we watched the orange-breasted falcons, various parrots, and a pair of toucans. Julie was merrily sketching along.

Just when Julie was finishing a falcon sketch, some non-birding civilians "bogarted" the scopes. I was asked to put a stop to this.
In the late afternoon at Tikal, a band (a closet?) of coatimundis came through. We did not offer them a look through either scope.

Ahhh, birding with a spotting scope. Makes BOTB a happy camper.

Monday, March 06, 2006

One Thousand Photographs

That's how many digital images I took in Guatemala. And I'm only just beginning to sort through them. Imagine taking that many film images. That's 27 rolls of film!

Why so many? There are several reasons:
  1. Guatemala is completely photographable, full of beautiful vistas, landforms, people, birds, and archaeological sites.
  2. I have a new, small, easy-to-use camera
  3. I have iPhoto and an Apple laptop--about the easiest set-up you can get.
  4. Looking through my digital images is very enjoyable.
  5. I NEVER feel guilty about wasting film.
Here are a few more images from our Guatemala adventure. Sorry for the dearth of postings over the weekend. I plan to be as daily as Jon Stewart from here on.
Our Tikal adventure resulted in perhaps the Greatest Day of Birding Ever. Thanks to Marco (left) and Hector, the Manakin (3rd from left).

Marco spotted this orange-breasted falcon and we spent three hours photographing (me) and sketching (JZ) it. THis rare raptor is nesting in the Tikal ruins.
On the way home from Lake Atitlan on Friday, I played guitar on the bus and we sang songs, including La Bamba, La Cucaracha, and Guantanamera (for the horned guan we saw on Volcan San Pedro). There was some Gallo beer involved in our merriment.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Guatemala Postcard

Volcan San Pedro, at dawn on 3/3/06, viewed from across Lake Atitlan. This is how I started my birthday!

We arrived back in Guatemala City this afternoon just before 5 pm. And we rushed upstairs to get into our room and get online because Julie and I are both such blogheads now, that we were anxious to see if our online lives were still extant.
So far, so good.

We have the closing dinner tonight for The Second International Bird Watching Encounter here in Guatemala, so a brief postcard post is all I can send for now.

Guatemala has been beyond fabulous. I an unsure of how many life birds I've gotten, but it's about half a ton. Including my most-sought-after bird, the resplendent quetzal, the national bird of this beautiful country.

We have also walked up a couple of volcanoes, boated across Lake Atitlan, and wandered the streets of tiny Guatemalan villages where the people still speak in Mayan dialects.

Here are a few images (I've taken nearly 800 pictures!) from the past week. Tomorrow we fly to Tikal for two more days of birding with our pals Marco and Hector. Then we head home to the good old USA on Monday.

Much more to come on our Guatemala adventure!

I have been digiscoping my huipil off here in Guatemala. This is my favorite tanager, the blue-gray tanager.
Our group along the trail at Los Andes, a coffee farm on the edge of the cloud forest. This is where I saw one of my dream birds.
Houghton Mifflin donated Spanish-language Kaufman Bird Guides for me to give to birding guides and kids in Guatemala. I gave two to the school at Los Andes.

Although we don't all look happy, we have just all gotten highland guan for a life bird.

Going Places in 2006

Here are some of the birding/nature events I'll/we'll be attending, speaking at, performing for, and generally enjoying in the months ahead.

Beckham Bird Club, Louisville, Kentucky.
March 14
Julie and I will be performing "Music of the Birds" for their annual banquet. Check out the BBC's February newsletter for banquet details. I am also hoping they can teach me to Bend It Like Beckham, one of Phoebe's favorite grrl-power movies.

Chicago Flower Show
, Navy Pier, Chicago Illinois, March 17.
I'll be giving a beginning bird gardening talk (with MUCH help from Green Thumbs Zickefoose). Power to the Flower People!

Ding Darling NWR, Sanibel Island, Florida,
March 30

Jules and I will present our "Identify Yourself" program on bird ID for the final show of the Ding's "Thursdays at 1:00" lecture series. Hoping to catch a my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates in a spring training game the following day.

Ohio Ornithological Society's Annual Conference, Shawnee State Forest, Portsmouth, Ohio, April 28-30.
I'll be serving as emcee and field trip leader again this year. It's a special joy to get to introduce my buddy Jim McCormac each year. I usually do so with a song. The OOS is less than three years old, but we've already got more than 700 members. The annual conference weekend is sure to sell out. Keynote speakers this year are Kenn Kaufman and Philip Hoose.

New River Birding Festival, Fayetteville, West Virginia, May 3-7.
I love this smallish birding festival because it's got the unbeatable combination of great people and even better birding. We'll try to top our record of 24 warbler species in one day tallied last year. My folks will be there, and so will Julie. We'll bird all day and play music at night.
Dave Pollard and Geoff Heeter, the two Bearded Wonders of the New River Birding Festival.

World Series of Birding
, Cape May Point, NJ, May 11-14.
The Bird Watcher's Digest/Houghton Mifflin team will once again be wearing out the seats of our pants by doing a very civilized Big Sit somewhere birdy. Details to follow. Visitors welcome (as long as you bring the hoagies).
The BWD/HMCO Gnatty Redstarts at the 2005 World Series of Birding. Our Big Sit location was at The Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor.

Potholes & Prairie Birding Festival, Jamestown, North Dakota, June 6-11.
We love North Dakota and have made many dear friends (feathered and unfeathered) in this beautiful and very birdy part of the world. If you've never been bird watching in native prairie, you are really missing out.
Upland sandpipers are common sights at the Potholes and Prairie Birding Festival.

Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua, New York, August 8-12.
Julie and I are on the Special Studies faculty for Week 7 of the 2006 Chautauqua season. We'll be giving presentations on the "Bird Friendly Backyard" theme. We'll also be riding our bikes like crazy and taking the kids for ice cream every night. "Kids, Daddy has to taste the ice cream first to make sure it's OK..."
My afternoon Bird Chat for the Bird, Tree, & Garden Club of Chautauqua was interrupted repeatedly by nesting red-headed woodpeckers.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

House Sparrows Declining

The beloved (in England) and mostly despised (in North America) house sparrow (Passer domesticus) has declined in population by more than 50% since 1977, according to a recent study of the species reported on by the BBC.

It is hypothesized that the decline is linked to the availability and abundance of insect prey during the sparrows' spring and summer breeding season. Although house sparrows can survive just fine on a diet of seeds and other plant matter during the fall and winter, the protein-rich insect diet during spring and summer is crucial to the survival of offspring. Further studies are needed to determine if spiders, moths, and insect populations in general are declining, or if there is some other factor contributing to the noticeably lower reproductive success in second (later) versus first broods by house sparrows.

Here in North America, where the house sparrow is a non-native species, its populations are declining, too. But that is thought to be a good thing since house sparrows are fierce competitors for nesting cavities, often outcompeting native species such as bluebirds, swallows, martins, chickadees, titmice, certain flycatchers, and the smaller woodpeckers. Many nest box landlords "control" house sparrows by trapping and euthanizing them.

What a pity that we cannot create a new Marshall Plan for the house sparrow, where thousands of our non-native birds could be captured and transported back to their ancestral homeland.

Special thanks to KLo for sending along this newsy bird item to BOTB.