Friday, June 30, 2006

Friday Around the Yard

Woke up to a crystal-clear morning. Still lots of birdsong in the air though July will soon arrive to put a damper on that. We sat out with coffee and tea from 7 to 9 and I played hide-and-seek with the shy male indigo bunting I want so badly to digiscope. He's a sly one.

Fortunately a few other local denizens were willing to let me take their images.
The indigo bunting male who will NOT let me get close enough for a good digiscoping image. He sings each morning and through the day from a willow tree on the hill by our fire circle. The light is all wrong in the morning (as show here), and in the evening when the light is perfect, he's a spooky as any songbird I've even tried to sneak up on. Doesn't he know how much I LOVE indigo buntings? We named our farm after this species.

This Dad bluebird is doing a typical Dadlike job feeding the kids--sloppy. This reminds me of the days when Liam and I are home alone and all we eat is hotdogs. This adult male is doing the feeding because his mate is building the nest for brood #3 in our garden bluebird box.

For the first time ever, we've let house sparrows nest in one of our bluebird boxes. Now before you bluebird fans organize a mob and start marching over to our farm with pitchforks and torches, let me do some 'splainin'. Julie is painting the nestlings day-by-day. This will someday become a book. The sales from this book will allow me to retire and live the life of bon-bon-eating leisure I've always felt entitled to live. And, once the project is over, we will suggest in the strongest possible terms that the house sparrows find somewhere else to live.

Luther, the healthier of Julie's two rehab phoebes, has been living free and wild for several days now. He still begs the occasional meal from us (and flies down to eat mealworms from our hands). And he obliges us by perching where we can take pictures of him. He is, I would wager, the most photographed eastern phoebe of all time. More (and better stuff) about the phoebes on Julie's blog.

Our dominant male ruby-throated hummingbird has a knack for choosing artistic perches. He is also relatively tamish, so my stumbling and fumbling around with a scope and tripod and camera does not frighten him away. I wish he'd speak to our indigo bunting friend.

This image, capturing the color on his gorget, was pure luck.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

A Long Summer's Evening

We had five dear friends over for dinner tonight and the weather cooperated beautifully. It was one of those June evenings where the sun's lemony light seems to slant in from the West at such an angle as to make everything it strikes look its most beautiful.

As the sun fell, the planets rose. We enjoyed several hours of viewing Jupiter and five of its moons.

The sunset always lasts longer from the tower.

We talked and laughed and languished in the long arms of the gentle evening. And we weren't the only ones enjoying the pleasant, bucolic setting....

This male ruby-throated hummingbird knows a good perch when it sees one.

This is not a sword plant or yucca leaf, it is the wing of our heron weather vane, the hummer's favorite perch.

Here's a toast to good friends Mary Jane and David, Zane and Margaret, and to Shila. And to our dear friends near and far. May every evening you enjoy be as lovely as this one was for us.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Song in My Head

Steady As She Goes
by The Raconteurs
from their album Broken Boy Soldiers

This song is really stuck in my head these days.

At the start of the song, the chord pattern and rhythm is somewhat reminiscent of Joe Jackson's Is She Really Going Out With Him? It's full of power pop hooks, something I find I seek out in the music I listen to in the summer. Lead singer for The Raconteurs is Jack White from The White Stripes, which lends immediate cred to this band in my book.

Give it a listen.
My favorite lines are "You've had too much to think" and "But no matter what you do, you'll always feel as though you tripped and fell." Simple, clever stuff.

The photo above is Volcan San Pedro, towering above Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. In early March, I climbed nearly to the top of this volcano, seeking the rare and elusive horned guan. The only way to make it up the mountain, huffing and puffing in the thin air, to the highland woods where the guan lived, was to have a "steady as she goes" attitude.
Otherwise, you'd never make it.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A Pharewell to Phoebes

Avis perched on a stick outside the picnic tent. This was his first minute of freedom.

Today was freedom day for the two orphaned eastern phoebes we've (well, Julie and Phoebe) have been raising. It baffles the mind how quickly birds develop from squirming, barely feathered, helpless creatures, into fully flighted and feathered miracles. Avis and Luther (named by our very own Phoebe) have been catching their own flying food inside the picnic tent we erected, so Julie decided it was time for them to be released. We opened the zipper doors and within minutes both birds flitted to freedom.

Julie knew the phoebes were ready to go when they began catching their own free-flying food and became skittish around us.

This did not please our Phoebe at all. She LOVES every nestling or rehab bird we get and she's becoming quite a big help in the care and feeding of them. Julie saw Phoebe's dejected look and tears this afternoon and reminded here "This is why we got Chet Baker, so we'd always have something to love." This did not help Phoebe feel much better, but it made Chet happy.

Julie gives a lot to her birds, but she also gets a lot in return.

I am in awe of the effort Julie puts into saving these orphaned and injured birds. She does it out of love for them. But she also gets something out of them--intimate knowledge of the birds she cares for, a peek into the personalities of the individual birds, and she often draws and paints them from life. Very few of the birds that have shared our home over the years have not "made it." And that's a testimony to Julie's skills as a rehabber. She loves it, but it's also an incredible commitment. And this time of year, when the phone rings, it's often someone calling with a sick or injured or orphaned bird. Julie takes all the calls, even though we cannot take all the birds. One she cannot handle or our facilities cannot accommodate, we send along the The Wildlife Center in Columbus.

So farewell, little phoebes. Tonight is your first night out there in the big world. We did our best for you. Please be safe, be aware of possible danger, enjoy our pesticide-free populations of insects, and please, come back and see us! We miss you already.
It made little Phoebe Linnea Thompson quite sad to see her fellow phoebes go. But she knows it's best for them...

Monday, June 26, 2006

A Lifer in Maine

At the Bangor, Maine ABA convention, on Saturday, June 24, I joined an early morning field trip (4:15 am departure) heading north to the boreal forest in search of boreal birds and creatures. Leaders on m y bus were Jeff Bouton (or Leica) and Stephen Ingrahm (of Zeiss) and Marion Bates, a local ornithologist and avid breeding bird census-maker. When it was discovered that I had my IPod and mad IPod skillz, I was immediately given a field commission to co-leader for the trip.

We drove 1.5 hours north of Bangor, nearly to the New Brunswick border, and spent the day walking along logging roads in the boggy boreal forest habitat. As we stepped off the bus to begin this adventure we immediately found ourselves black with mosquitoes. Bug juice of varying intensities only seemed to discourage them. It certainly did not dissuade them from robbing us of pints of our blood.

On the long drive north, as I dozed in the second row seat, a cry of "MOOSE!" went up. A young moose was tramping along the roadside ditch, and into the woods. I leapt awake, binos at my eyes and saw the huge, hairy mammal. A life mammal for me! Too bad it was gone as the bus whipped past, it would've been nice to photograph it.

Shortly after we got off the bus, a small flock of red crossbills came through the woods. The light was unbearable for photography, but when did that ever stop me?

The two gals above are modeling two very different styles of protective mosquito netting. I would go nuts having to pull a wedding-veil-like hunk of netting out of myt way each time I raised them. But the folks with the netting spent more time watching birds and less time shooing the skeeters from their heads.

This cedar waxwing was most photogenic. Too bad he wasn't bohemian.

We walked for a couple of hours along one logging road, encountering little pockets of bird activity that garnered good looks at Blackburnian warbler, cedar waxwing (above), yellow-bellied flycatcher, white-throated sparrow, and a brief glimpse at some gray jays. Then as I played the black-backed woodpecker call for the last time on my IPod. A lone adult male appeared—my preference for seeing this bird was to see a male with the yellow on his head, and thank my shooting stars and lost lucky charms, that's exactly what we got: and adult male black-backed.

Ahhh! My life black-backed woodpecker! He responded to a woodpecker drumming sound on my IPod. This species is one I have tried to see numerous times in the past. This guy really showed well and soon began preening and loafing. Un pajaro bonita! I oohed and ahhhed as it called, drummed, and eventually flew off, having vanquished its imaginary foe.

They got this bird's name right. How much blacker could its back be? None blacker!

After we got the black-backed woodpecker, I asked everyone for whom it was a life bird, to stand with me (in solidarity) and perform the Life Bird Wiggle. This is the photo documentation.

Raise your hands in the air like you just don't care! The shake your body, wave your arms, and go "Whoooooooo!"
Congratulations, you now know the proper way to celebrate a life bird!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Giant Things of Maine

I know this is the kind of stuff you REALLY want to read here at BOTB.
Heck with the haiku.
Blah-blah-blah on the birding trips.
It's giant things that float your blog-surfing boat.
Don't even TRY to deny it.

Well, here you should be ashamed of yourself.
I met Paul Bunyan in Bangor, though for some reason I thought he was from Minnesota. (foto by Jeff Bouton)

Jeff Bouton met Paul Bunyan, too. Later that night, Jeff sang his heart out at karaoke. I think meeting Paul B really inspired him.

I enjoyed dinner on Thursday nigh at The Angler's Inn, with some jocular folks from Field Guides, plus Jeff Bouton and Jeff Gordon from Leica, and Amy Hooper from WildBird, plus Sharon Stiteler from Eagle Optics. On our way into the restaurant, we were confronted with this creature:

Is it a bear? A raccoon? A pig? This is a seafood restaurant. Is it a manatee?

Outside The Angler's Inn was Maine's most familiar icon, a giant lobster.
This is giant lobster, served alone.

This is giant lobster, with two side dishes.

Thursday's Maine Adventure

Enjoying the king eider in Acadia NP.

Howdy friends! So sorry for the blackout here at BOTB. I have been busier than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest at the ABA conference. And a bit more tired than usual. But I feel the need to share some of the adventures from my Maine journey, so here goes.

I am once again in the Detroit airport, having missed another flight (we were late leaving Bangor this morning). But that's OK, I feel so at home here, somehow. Can't wait to get back to the farm and family this evening.

After arriving in Bangor at 3 am on Thursday morning, I showered and made my way to the loading zone for my field trip, which left at 4:30. Greeted a bunch of bleary-eyed friends and told my tale of travel woe a few times, them it was time to help people see birds. Our trip was to Acadia National Park and we had several good leaders on our bus. I was added on as a helper, but since my pal Jeff Gordon was one of the leaders, I knew we were in good hands. We went immediately to see the king eider--a male along the causeway onto Mount Dessert (not Desert) Island. The waters around the causeway were full of common eiders, but it was not long before one of our local Maine guides found the king. We all got great looks at it--and I got a few documentary pix.
Male common eider on Mt. Dessert Island.

Jeff Gordon as Ewell Gibbons. "Many parts of this rocky Maine beach are edible! Take this seaweed for eample!"

Then we walked up the road to the restrooms (a birding trip must) and a bit of easy birding along the forested road. We had several northern parulas, a black-throated green warbler and distant looks at black guillemot and black scoter.
Squnit really hard and see the black guillemot in this award-winning photo.

Cropped and fuzzy, but undeniably a northern parula.

This male black-throated green warbler was singing with his beak full. Is that polite?

The beauty of the Maine coast never ceases to astonish me. It's so ruggedly charming. Plus there's lots of lobster to eat. I spent about 15 minutes walking by myself along the rocky shore, breathing deeply and trying to soak in as much of the moment as I could. It felt good to be there, in spite of my long journey of the night before.
I just wanted to take all of these rocks home.

Soon we were back on the bus to head inland for a stop at Wonderland. I was excited to finally meet Alice and perhaps the hookah-smoking caterpillar, but no such luck. We did however see some other birds of the northern woods, including purple finch, both kinglets, red-breasted nuthatch, magnolia warbler, and so on.
John Mayer's voice was running through my head "You birding in a WON-dah-land!" That and "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane.

Pete Dunne was along (and his wife, Linda, too) and was quite happy to demonstrate his pishing technique for our group of 40 birders. Pete has a new book out on the subject of pishing (published by Stackpole), so we kidded him that every pish and squeak was a not-so-subtle reminder to everyone to buy his new book. Of course his OTHER book is the impressively large and extensive Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion (published by Houghton Mifflin). This one was harder to work into in-the-field conversations, but he did share a few of his Dunne-isms--the alternative names he's given for every North American bird: swarm warbler for yellow-rumped, flash-dancer for American redstart, etc. Clever man, that Mr. Dunne. He and Linda are off on another birding/writing/traveling adventure soon, which sounds like a dream trip.
Male swarm warbler in full swarm.

The birding the rest of the day was a tad slow--though we made the most of it: Philly vireo and chestnut-sided warbler at one stop. A peregrine fledgling on a precipice (spotted by the always-observant David Bird--BWD's behavior columnist). Message to David: I remembered the joke thanks to Julie and I'll tell it to you next time we meet. It involves a small businessman and his two employees Jack and Kay, and it's too awful to share here...

We ended the day with a decent bird total and happy birders on the bus. I was catatonic from lack of sleep, so I nodded out on the trip home. This seemed to be just enough recharging of my batteries to give me a second wind. For there was karaoke koming in the night, with the usual suspects. More on that in the next post.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The King of the Eiders

Just enough time to share a digi-pic of the day's best bird (for me) a male king eider.

Will elaborate after I have sustenance, a frosty hoppy beverage, and perhaps a wink or two of sleep--(have been up, save for a few tiny nods in a bus or plane seat, since 6 am yesterday).

Bangor Update

The only cool thing about the Detroit airport is this tunnel of light. I spent three hours inside it today, just zoning out.

OK. Here's my final whiny update on this trip to Maine.
Spent the hours between 12 noon and 9:45 pm inside the Detroit airport.
Spent the hours between 9:50 pm and 1:15 am on the tarmac at the Detroit airport.
Got into Bangor at 3 am.
4:30 am bus trip to Acadia NP (which my bro Jeff Gordon got me on) so I'm staying up to go birding.

Why sleep now?

Needless to say I've had some idle hours to think up some new marketing slogans for my friends at Northwest Airlines. (I know these delays were Mother Nature's doing, but so many of the NWA folks were being real Crankypants, that I thought I'd help them out a bit here).

So here's what I suggest for NWA's 2007 marketing campaign.

Northwest Airlines
Helping you appreciate the automobile

Northwest Airlines
We fly only on sunny days!


Northwest Airlines
Not when our planes are wet. Eeeeewww!

Northwest Airlines
We don't think you've spent enough time in Detroit

Northwest Airlines
Try our Next Day Express Service—We'll get you there in 2 to 3 days MAX!

Northwest Airlines
We've got your seat right here, next to a 380-pound man who just had Mexican food for lunch! And look! He's taking off his boots!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Motor City Madness

Stranded in Detroit's trying-too-hard-to-be-modern airport with thousands of other disgruntled fellow travelers. It's looking grim for my 9:12 pm flight to depart with the tornado watch that's in effect, the almost-constant lightning, and driving rain. Presently every flight is delayed and the longest-delayed ones are being cancelled one by one.

So I've done what any savvy traveler does, I've staked out where I'll be sleeping tonight if the flight does not go to Bangor. It's at Gate C27 in the back left corner, behind the fake pine tree. If I get cold I can plug in my laptop and cuddle with it. It'll be just like camping, but on carpet and with lots of announcements going on overhead. Oh and many, many loud cell phone conversations--I'm totally updated on Aunt Flo's gout. Stop by and we'll read all yesterday's newspapers!

I'll pretend the beeping courtesy carts are crickets and I should drift peacefully away to the Land of the Sandman.

Happy trails 2U! BOTB

And All the Garden Ladies

Yesterday our farm hosted two local garden clubs. Jules and I spent most of the weekend prepping for this event and I must say, the farm looked great. This is almost entirely do to Green Thumbs Zickefoose, who can make plain wooden tomato stakes sprout sweet-smelling cascades of flowers. I, on the other hand, contributed merely labor in mowing and weed-whacking and a bit of raking.

The garden ladies (and it WAS almost entirely female--the only males were kids accompanying their moms) oohed and ahhed at Julie's gardens, her bonsai plants, our gazing pond, and landscaping. They stood slack-jawed as Jules told about the phoebes we've been raising (and Julie has been doing paintings of). Perhaps the highlight was when everyone who wanted to do so got to hold tiny nestling bluebirds in their hands.

It's a special treat to share an experience like that.

I am very lucky to have my own garden lady. And I am happy to be her designated weed-whacker.

Not Leaving on a Jet Plane

Today I am supposed to fly to Bangor, Maine for the last four days of the ABA convention. But right now I am stranded at the Columbus, Ohio airport watching the kindly gate attendants at Northwest Airlines deal with a long line of unhappy travelers. It's no one's fault, unless we can find out who is in charge of summer thunderstorm scheduling.

I was dismayed when I saw that my travel route today was going through Detroit. I have never flown through the Motor City without complications. Asi es la vida!

One thing that drives me insane about airport travel is that you are forced to listen to other people's cell phone conversations. Right now, here at Gate B36, there is a mullet-sporting woman in stretch pants talking loudly about tax shelters for her client. I think she's a lawyer or an accountant. Now maybe it's just my own personal bias, but if my accountant or attorney showed up for a meeting with a long, flowing mullet (with wings), I think I'd have to replace them.

A few aisles away there's a classic worn-out businessman in what's left of a three-piece suit, a tie that's too short, and sensible shoes. He's not going to make the sales conference in Eau Claire, and everyone else around him knows this because he's now said it three times in a row.

Think I'll pull out my phone and have a loud conversation of no importance with my imaginary friend. I'm just dying to talk about my collection of Chia pets, and that conversation simply cannot wait.

OK. Sorry for being so cranky. I should know better. After all, there's no whining in Blogland.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

This June Morning

I awoke before the birds this morning, about 4 am. Could not sleep, so I sat outside on the patio for about an hour, listening to the world stirring, stretching, and rising to meet the day.

It was a lovely morning, with lemony light slanting in from the East--perfect for digiscoping. I heard a prairie warbler out the meadow, so I geared up, grabbed my coffee and headed out. Little did I know that this was the only prairie warbler in the universe that does not sing from an exposed perch near the top of a tree. Perhaps he spends the winter in the tropics picking up bad habits from antbirds and antpittas. Never got a glimpse, or even a shot. I considered getting my iPod to lure him out, but quickly rejected the idea. There will be other chances.

I did manage two distant shots which I'll share here: a northern cardinal male and an indigo bunting male. Neither image is going to get me the cover of National Geographic but it felt good to snap some bird pix again.

Tomorrow I leave for Maine and the remainder of the American Birding Association convention. It'll be nice to hang with some birding pals. And who knows, I might just head off on another quest for a couple of life birds--spruce grouse, black-backed woodpecker, northern three-toed woodpecker.... Call me a dreamer, pero no somos nada sin nuestros suenos.

The Song in My Head

Just a Memory
by Elvis Costello & The Attractions
from his "Taking Liberties" album,
released in 1980.

I'm reaching way back in the cob-web-covered archives for this one.

As a young, punk-leaning musician in 1977-78, I was captivated by the new, hook-filled pop-punk coming out of England. In particular, Elvis Costello (later to become Elvis Costello and The Attractions) grabbed my ears with "Alison," "Accidents Will Happen," and "What's So Funny 'bout Peace, Love and Understanding?" It was new rock, but with a great melodic sense, clever lyrics, and seriously good rhythms.

I was a freshman in college in the fall of 1980 when Elvis' third album, "Taking Liberties," came out. It hit me like a ton of bricks--especially the song "Just a Memory." Something about the way Elvis sang "Losing you is just a memory. Memories don't mean that much to me" resonated deeply with me. Goodbye high school girlfriend, and cozy life at home. Hello big, cruel world.

All the other songs on the album were punchy, raw rock of the time, save for Elvis' cover of "My Funny Valentine." Twenty-seven years later and I can still remember how listening to this album in my dorm room in Peabody Hall made me feel. For most of the 80's, Elvis Costello's music was my sonic reference point.

But the album had other effects, too: I started writing songs (nearly all of which were hopelessly bad). And I started my first college band "The Shades" --just wanting to play thoroughly modern music. Of course we settled mostly for cheesy frat rock, but the gigs we played and the hours of practice did me a world of good.

Perhaps least importantly of all, as you can see from the photo above, (taken recently in North Dakota) I've still got an affinity for nerdy, Elvis-like eyewear.

The lyrics to "Just a Memory" are here. One of many major Elvis Costello fan sites is here. You can't (legally) download most of the older Elvis songs, but on the ITunes website you can get a version of "Just a Memory" done by Tywanna Jo Baskette on an EC tribute album, called "Almost You." It's a decent version, but I still love Elvis' best of all. I've gone back to it many times over the intervening years.

And it's not completely true--memories, as you may have inferred, DO mean a lot to me. Sometimes they're all you've got.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Turtle Rain

Every June, when we get our first really rainy day, the box turtles get on the move. Males are looking for females. Females are looking for males and for places to dig their nests.

As I lay awake last night, listening to the rain spattering onto the hosta leaves outside my bedroom window, I knew I'd be seeing turtles on the way into work in the morning. And sure enough, I was right.

I saw five box turtles total and saved four of them. One met the fate that so many of these slow, gentle creatures meet each June--smashed by the tires of a passing vehicle. I won't share that image with you.

Here are two of the turtles I saved, one (the yellow one) a female, the other, a dark, old male. Box turtles can live a very long time and these two might even predate the asphalt-covered county road I was on today. I imagine how, for an old survivor, crossing a busy highway or even a well-traveled country road, is like playing Russian roulette. Sooner or later their luck is going to run out.
This bright yellow female box turtle was heavy with eggs.

A bottom view of the dark male I saved. Males have a concave portion of their undersides to facilitate a better fit for mating with females.

I try to stop to help each turtle that I see. Sometimes I'm too late. Sometimes, while I'm waiting for traffic to pass, I have to sit and watch in anguish as the turtle gets hit. And yet, when I help them safely on their way, it gives me a a small measure of satisfaction for a deed well done.

It felt good to help four turtles across the road today.

I think I needed it as much as they did.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Jupiter Must Know Something

Night sky inky black
nothing stirs, save twinkling stars
and Jupiter's smile

Saturday, June 17, 2006

If a Tree Falls....

For the past week, all day, every day, starting at about 7:00 am, several large chainsaws start growling in the woods to the west of us. Our neighboring farmer is having his timber harvested.

Interspersed with the the saws' whining are the sounds of tree trunks cracking and protesting as they fall, for the first and last time, to the ground with a thump you can feel in your feet, even from a mile away, the same way you can feel the bass drum in your heart as a marching band in a parade passes you by.

Timbering your land is a time-honored tradition here in SE Ohio. It's everyone's right to "harvest" what they want to from their property. What baffles me is: Why do they have to cut in the middle of the songbird nesting season? What can't they wait until fall or even August?

We're sure that the recent sightings in our yard of cerulean warblers and summer tanagers are of birds who have been displaced from the woods being timbered. It's hard to imagine a summer tanager being forced to leave its nest as the tree it's built in teeters, then falls over.

So we try not to think of that. Instead we try to think about how the newly opened up woods will be good for turkeys and grouse. How resilient this land is. And how the power of Nature means green trees will still be here long after these chainsaws are rusted, broken, and silent.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Bird of Steele

Steel yourselves, my faithful BOTB readers. You are about to visit the most popular tourist attraction in Steele, ND. It is a giant sandhill crane. And I have featured it here in BOTB before, but never like this.

Harmless enough from a distance, charming even, the Steele sandhill crane. By the way, that birdbath by the rocks is WAY too small for the crane to use.

On Saturday, June 10, 2006, just before I went to my sacred place, I dropped into the charming ville on I-94, known as Steele, North Dakota. This is the home of the World's Largest Sandhill Crane.

I think, in the interest of accuracy (as a magazine editor, I'm a member of the elite liberal media) we should add the word "Manufactured", or even "Steel" to that description, since this is not a wild, free-flying sandhill crane of gargantuan proportions. Rather it is a human-made structure that draws tourists off the highway much as certain things draw flies.

The Steele crane is not ugly, but it is ginormous. I spent a few moments communing with it, snapped a few digital images, and went along my way, satisfied to have added this species, in person, to my life list of Giant Things.

You can tell at least one lawyer has visited. So what, is this bird not potty trained?

Oh, dude! What creature on this green earth could've left giant dark piles of steaming...Oh no! No way! The Steele crane is... ALIVE?

Amber Waves at Sunset

Wind, in waves, moves past
nodding heads of amber grain
sandhill crane garoos

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Jinx Me No More

For the better part of the past 25 years of bird watching, I have had one pretty common eastern wood warbler that has eluded me: the Connecticut warbler. I've been on the wrong side of the bush from one or more during fall migration at Higbee's Beach in Cape May, NJ. I've rushed to spring reports of these birds in Columbus, Ohio's Greenlawn Cemetery. I've driven the back roads of the North Woods looking and listening in vain.

It had become a joke among my birding pals here in Ohio, especially within the friendly confines of The Ohio Ornithological Society. Jim McCormac, one of Ohio's best, most avid birders has not done a newspaper interview in the past five years where he failed to point out that "one of my very accomplished birding friends--the editor of a major birding magazine--has not seen a certain bird, the Connecticut warbler." He even included this in his board member bio for the OOS website. I have met dozens of beginning birders who have seen the Connecticut warbler. Julie has seen or heard several on our farm here in SE Ohio! But not me. The Connecticut warbler is MY JINX BIRD.

Well those days are OVER, baby!

On Monday morning, June 12, at about 5:50 am, eight miles north of Roseau, MN, I saw my jinx bird and officially broke the jinx.

This sighting came at the end of five days at the Potholes & Prairie Birding Festival in Jamestown, ND. And when I found I could not fly out of Fargo, ND on Sunday (nothing affordable available) I picked a Monday afternoon flight and promptly set my sights on breaking this birding curse. I contacted my pal Dave Lambeth, ace birder of Grand Forks, ND and he made some inquiries on my behalf. All the info I needed came in an e-mail from a MN birder named Peder. Check Highway 310 about 8 to 10 miles north of Roseau before 8 am when the bird quit singing.

Well I got to Roseau and to the magical Hwy 310 late in the afternoon of Sunday, June 11 and began looking in all the suggested spots. Lots of great birds in this pine-spruce bog habitat: purple finches, least flycatchers, many wood warblers, but no sign of my jinx bird (other life bird possibilities for me here included great gray owl, spruce grouse, northern three-toed woodpecker and American black-backed woodpecker). I drove my pimped-out rental car to the end of the road, just south of the border crossing into Manitoba. A dirt road lead off to the right, past a sign for a gun club. There were no shots echoing from the club, and no No Trespassing sign (something I always obey when birding) so I drove in.

One way to tell you are in the Great North is when you see a sign like this.

Oh it was birdy off the highway, and I went all the way to the rifle range about 100 yards up the road. I got out of the car, climbed a small hill where the shooting benches were and realized I was looking at a fabulous patch of habitat for a great gray owl to hunt. Just then a large bird took off from a distant perch, my heart leapt--it was a red-tailed hawk. The day shift, hunting the meadow. Moments later I heard a sharp, staccato warbler song and my pulse raced--was it a Connecticut? No, my rational mind took over--it was a mourning warbler, and I've known that song since my early birding days in the West Virginia highlands.

The owl bog on the rifle range, pre-owl sighting.

Thoroughly frustrated with my own "buck fever" for new life birds, I decided to head south to Beltrami State Forest for the remaining three hours of daylight, with a plan to return to this meadow at dusk. I spent a lovely three hours in Beltrami and saw loads of great things (gray jay, veery, black-throated green warbler, white-throated and Lincoln's sparrows, sandhill crane short-eared owl), but none of my quest birds.

Driving back up the gun club road as the sun was setting I noticed some pink-tinged clouds to the north, like a celestial beacon calling me to visit Manitoba, if only to say I'd been there. I made a deal with myself that if I did not see the great gray after scanning the meadow, I'd cross the border and then come back. The fact is, I'd already been there. Earlier in the day I blundered across the border in the middle of the woods, while chasing down a weird flycatcher call note (turned out to be a yellow-bellied).
Pink sunset clouds beckoned to me from Manitoba.

I climbed back up the shooting bench hill on the rifle range and a bit of motion in a distant tree caught my eye. A large raptor had just flown up to a perch and was struggling to get its footing. I looked with my 10x binocs and could see that it was huge and gray, but the dim light and the distance kept me from an identification. I sprinted to the car for my scope, cursed the engineer who designed the locks that LOCK when the car is put in drive but don't UNLOCK when the car is put back into park! Fumbled for my keys, precious seconds ticking away.....

Grabbed the scope, twisted my ankle sprinting back up the hill, and cursing the pain and the lock engineer, set up the scope on a GREAT GRAY OWL LEAVING THE PERCH! I mumble the species' name over and over something like this: that's a *&$#^@ great gray owl! that's a *&$#^@ great gray owl! that's a *&$#^@ great gray owl! Then I danced a pathetic sort of jig on my one good leg. Oh the joy, But the bird was gone, into the woods at the end of a meadow, perhaps 500 yards away. I knew I had to go after it. This was a look but not a LOOK. Plus my digiscoping trigger finger started itching....

Down a rutted ATV path I went, half limping, half running. This ankle had been bothering me since a Saturday field trip for the OOS in late April, and so far no one has been able to tell me what's wrong. It's an annoyance rather than debilitating so I was not going to let it prevent me from trying to see this bird of a lifetime. One additional problem...the path went through the scrubby woods, and there was no wind in there--what was there was an army of mosquitoes like I have never encountered. Of course I had no bug spray. Again an annoyance, not reason enough to quit on this owl. Four hundred and fifty yards later, the owl flew past me heading in the opposite direction. I lost sight of it for the next 10 minutes, giving the encroaching night just enough time to finish off the remaining daylight, rendering digiscoping a nearly moot exercise.
My first shot of a great gray owl. The next 10 images looked just like this. Low light does not love digiscoping.

Then I saw the owl. Perched not 50 feet from my parked car. Back over to the path, which offered me a defilade approach--I could get closer to the bird without it seeing me. Back down the path I went, huffing, puffing, saying my transcendental meditation mantra to keep myself calm. And finally, at the edge of the path, I emerged and there was my bird, looking me dead in the eye from 50 yards away. I set up the scope and took some hopeless digiscoped shots. I gazed at the bird, its eyes looking right through me. It was not interested in me, it was interested in food for nestlings. Several hunting plunges yielded nothing, so the great gray flew to the edge of the woods, and I snapped a few more images. My God what a creature! And I'd found it myself.

Shot on "night" with no flash. There's no doubt about this bird's identity.

And then the bird was gone and no amount of scanning in the foreclosing dusk could reconjure it. I sighed a satisfied sigh, slapped aimlessly at my neckful of mosquitoes, and decided to drink a toast to this owl. I raised a bottle of beer in its honor, then headed for my hotel, satisfied that the day was mine.

A toast to a great life bird. Too bad it was not Canadian beer.

It gets dark late and gets light early in the Great North. I was out of the hotel by 4:45 heading up Hwy 310. At the 8-mile marker I heard my bird, a male Connecticut warbler in full voice. I stopped, I scanned, I slapped at more mosquitoes. The bird sang on, unseen. Peder, the helpful MN birder had said "the bird will most likely be perched 20 feet up in a jack pine right next to the trunk." If this bird was singing from where he sounded like he was singing, he must've been dressed in his pine-cone costume from last Halloween. I could not find him.

So I decided to go after him. Problem was there was an eight-foot wide creek with very muddy banks between us. I found the narrowest point and made a leap, remembering in mid-air my bad right ankle. What fools we birders be. I am still shocked that my scream of pain did not scare away every bird within a mile. But I was across and I pulled my boots out of the sucking mud and scrambled up the bank. The ground between me and my singing jinxster was bog at its finest. Treacherous footing, many downed trees, deep sinkholes, and isolated islands of ferns and grasses. Slowly I made my way toward the loud, persistent singer and as I did I realized that the birds I thought were just across the creek were actually singing really loudly from back in the woods about 50 yards.

Yet I was not to be denied. I got to where the bird seemed to be almost overhead and scanned intently while I caught my breath. A tick crawled across my neck, shooing mosquitoes from their intense work. I let them have their way with me. This was a crucial moment in my bird watching life. And there he was. Or at least there his beautiful back end was. The first part of the Connecticut warbler to help me break this jinx was his, well, ass. I could not see the head and this bird wears all its field marks on its head.
When I finally got to see the eyering and hood, I knew the jinx was up.

So I had to move. And that was hard. I did not want to lose the bird, spook him, and be left with only the ass of a Connecticut warbler for my life list. That would hardly lift the jinx. I could only imagine what Jim McCormac would say: "Yeah Bill is a birding pervert, he only looks at the asses of life birds...." No that would never do.

And so I tiptoed through the boggy woods, around to the left, where the angle and light would be in my favor. I refound the perch and the bird was GONE! I said a bad word and then another. Just then a movement caught my eye and there was my guy, just feet away. And the eeriest feeling came over me: He's come to say hello!
This Connecticut's robust song is perfectly designed to carry a long way in the thick pines of a northern bog.

I was overcome with joy as I watched this hooded sprite cavort atop the moss-covered logs. His eyering a perfect white circle, his huge (for a warbler) proportions perfectly Oporornis. Thank you, my tiny friend! He flew halfway back up a tree and perched for ten (10!) minutes singing and looking at me. I snapped off some pretty poor digis and said my second prayer of thanks to the birding gods in the past 24 hours. Being before 6 am, I did not toast this lifer with another beer, though the thought did cross my mind.
Ahhh! Number 623 on my North American life list, but who's counting?

It was a moment to savor. I only wish I could've shared it with Julie, Jim, Dave, Tim, Patti, and so many other great bird watching companions.

Two things happened to me on the way back out of the bog. I fell and twisted my right ankle between to fallen trees that were buried under thick grass. And for a few minutes I thought I'd have to shout for help, though there would be no traffic on the road for two more hours, when the border opened at 8 am. I even checked my cellphone in case I needed to call someone--no reception. After about 15 minutes, the pain and throbbing subsided and I started moving slowly toward the creek. Getting back across proved more of a chore. Because I could neither push off nor land with my right ankle, I had to build a bridge of stepping stones across. For stones I used pieces of logs. For balance I used my tripod and scope. I made it, only sinking once up to my shins in the mud. On the other side, I made it to the car and sat for a spell.

Necessity is the mother of invention. My bridge back across the boggy creek.

For the first time in 25 years I was without a jinx bird. It felt weird.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Number 600-something

It's late and I am a mixture of totally tired and revving on adrenaline. Here's why.
I saw this species tonight, right at dusk, within a few dozen yards of the Canadian border near Roseau, MN.

I'll tell the whole story soon. Tomorrow I have a couple more quest birds before I catch the big bird home. Now...sleep!

Special thanks to Dave Lambeth and Tim Driscoll for the great gray owl location tips, to Jules for letting me go to ND (and MN), and to the birding gods for smiling.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Sacred Places

Male chestnut-collared longspur, singing in his sacred place, which he kindly shared with me.

Every now and then I stumble across a place that just feels right to me. A place where I could simply sit for hours doing nothing but soaking in everything around me. Today I found just such a place about an hour and a half west of Jamestown.

I headed out in the late morning, my only destination: a place with lark buntings. I had some general directions from one of the local ND birders and so I roared west on I-64. I did stop in the town of Steele to see the world's largest sandhill crane (more on that in a subsequent post). Getting off 64, I ambled north into the dry, rolling prairie of Burleigh County. This was as far west as I've ever been in ND, so it was new territory.

I stopped at a likely spot and as soon as I got out of the car, my ears were greeted with the raspy warbled song of the lark bunting--two males were settling a border dispute. Then I noticed how lovely the land was all around me.

The lark buntings were too shy to get good photos of, but they seemed to get along well with their neighbors.

Grassy rolling hills stretched from horizon to horizon. And the bird song, even with the strong wind, was like a symphony. Chestnut-collared longspurs, lark buntings, clay-colored, grasshopper, and vesper sparrows, horned larks, western meadowlarks, marbled godwits, willets, upland sandpipers, and sky-high overhead, a Sprague's pipit.

This marbled godwit chased every car that passed down the road, protecting his turf.

The weather was still poor for digiscoping, but I remained undeterred, snapping of frame after frame that I knew would be soft.

Due to the high winds, the kingbirds were laying low, grabbing insects off the ground.

Small piles of round granite stones were scattered here and there, piled up by farmers during plowing. I chose one pile to photograph and remember, touching the cool stones and wishing I could take them home for the garden or front stoop. The stones seemed to vibrate in my hands.

Plow-cast piles of rocks are everywhere. I loved this one especially.

Despite the cold wind and the occasional drizzle, I spent more than two hours at this spot. I just seemed to resonate with this particular piece of the planet. It wasn't just the landscape, or the birds, or the rocks, or the weather-beaten wooden fence--it was all of that and then some.

It felt so good to be alone in this sacred and magical place. I hope to go back again one day.

This upland sandpiper promised to watch over my sacred North Dakota place for me until I return.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Road to Nowhere

Empty prairie calls
Peace on the road to nowhere
I will shed my skin.

A Harsh Mistress

Part of our intrepid group, birding between the raindrops.

Yesterday (Friday, June 9) I found out that the gentle, beautiful rolling prairie (that I love so much) can be a harsh mistress. Twenty-eight intrepid birders ventured out in a giant tour bus, headed to Chase Lake NWR in search of some of the area's highlight birds. Oh we found many avian delights, but we had to work mighty hard in the face of cold driving rain and muddy roads so slick that it was like driving on ice. Plus, it was cold and very windy--think horizontal, stinging rain.

We finally figured out that if we only birded from the lee side of the bus, being outside was less like taking a cold shower on a winter's day. At one point our bus driver said "Uh oh" and the bus slid sideways to the right, almost going fully into the ditch and tilting at an angle normally associated with racing sailboats. We all moved to the upside of the bus and our skilled driver got us unstuck and back on the road.
We set a world record for most people on one side of a bus when we slid into the ditch and needed counterweight balance to get out.

Among the best birds of the day were a very cooperative Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow, some eared grebes, Clark's grebes, and chestnut-collared longspurs. We ended the day with 75 species--a very respectable total given the challenging weather. Among the familiar faces on the trip were Elsa Thompson (mi madre), Sharon Stiteler (BirdChick, read her take on the day here), Paulette Scherr, and Stacey Adolph-Whip (both local NWR employees and really good birders). To our groups credit (and contrary to my whining here) nobody complained about the weather.
Another hopeless day for digiscoping. This was my best shot of our friendly Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow.

Eared grebe on Pearl Lake, part of Chase Lake NWR.

Later that night I played music for the festival attendees at The Buffalo Museum in Jamestown, fulfilling a lifelong dream of sharing the stage with a stuffed buffalo. Great fiddler and good pal Jessie Munson came to town for the gig. As usual, her fiddling totally made the gig--she's like Hamburger Helper: Add her to any musical setting and she makes things tastier. Our good buddy Ernie Haffert also joined us on stage for several numbers. Jessie and I (and Zick) are going to put a national tour together--playing just birding festivals. Our backstage demands will be unmeetable: "We require three brandy snifters backstage, each one full of green , peanut M&M's, three masseuses, a bag of 48 sliders from White Castle, and at least one life bird, staked out for each member of our band."No buffalo were harmed in the making of this music. Can't say the same about the humans beings in the room.

Among my fave tunes we played last night were Far, Far Away (by Wilco), These Days (Jackson Browne), and Red-haired Boy (a traditional Irish tune). It was great to end the day with good friends, playing music.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

For an Old Homestead

Old prairie lady
leans into her shelterbelt
remembering when

North Dakota Day 2

Chilly and drizzly today--could not have picked a worse day to burden with a bunch of hopes for digiscoping. But, hey, being out on the open prairie, even in the cold and wet, beats stubbing your toe three times in a row. Or waking up dead on a stranger's car windshield--like this leopard frog I found on my car this morning.
The weather was not going to prevent my adventure today, though the lack of bright sunshine would render most of my digiscoped shots too soft to salvage...

First I headed north out of Jamestown, toward the charming prairie village of Pingree, home of the world famous Pingree Cafe (you MUST have the knefla soup). I planned to save my cafe stop for lunch--more on that later.

En route to Pingree, near the throbbing metropolis of Buchanan, I stopped, as I do every June, to take a picture of the giant cow that is slowing rotting away. I believe it was once meant to be a stage for live music. Not sure why THAT idea didn't take off....

Everywhere you look here in the prairie pothole region life is exploding and active. Birds are singing, grasses blowing in the breeze, insects humming. But there are also signs of former lives in the many abandoned homesteads. Tucked into an enveloping shelterbelt of trees, these skeleton buildings are all that remain of someone's hopes and dreams and hard work and tears.
Yes, I did see a few birds today. Even found a pair of chestnut-collared longspurs that REFUSED to be photographed. But I still managed a few shots--again pardon the distance and softness. Am hoping for some better luck on Saturday when the weather is supposed to keep on the sunny side.

Several pairs of western grebes were courting on the lakes in Chase Lake NWR.

I must have seen 2,000 American white pelicans during the day, in flocks of 15-25.Here's a distant shot of one part of the world's largest white pelican nesting colony, at Chase Lake NWR. That white line on the island is all pelicans.

Marbled godwits are such great-looking birds. I especially love their cinnamon wing linings (not shown)

I looked at so many Savannah sparrows today that I developed yellow lore spots myself. Not a single one of the 'vannahs morphed into a Baird's sparrow, not even after I ate those mushrooms I found on a cowpie.

Tomorrow we're up and outta here at 5 am headed on a big bus to Chase Lake again hoping for better weather (not likely according to the forecast) and good birding (guaranteed, no matter what).

North Dakota Landing

Gee it's great to be back in North Dakota, one of my favorite places on earth. The wide open spaces just seem to relax and center me. Why? Take a look at this image of a typical ND road through the prairie potholes region of the state. Isn't it alluring?
Lots of birds today, but not a lot of time or cooperative subjects for digiscoping, so please bear with me as I share today's "best" images.
A drake blue-winged teal, just before he took off to woo a nearby female.

Breeding and courting gadwalls were everywhere today as I drove from Jamestown toward Chase Lake NWR.

How male yellow-headed blackbirds attract females with their song (sounds like someone retching) is beyond me. Must be their handsome good looks!

An adult black-crowned night heron permitted me to capture its image. Then he flew off with a loud squoc!

The only American avocet I saw all day, and it had to be sleeping!

A doe white-tailed deer scans for danger behind her.

Minneapolis must be having a huge problem with Canada geese because I saw this billboard ad in the airport!

Not sure why, but I love this image of a Swainson's hawk taking off from a fencepost.

Mas manana, amigos!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Saturday Night Signage

I went to see my friend Vinnie's band on Saturday night at a new music venue on the west side of Marietta. This place, formerly known (and feared) as The Cliffside Carryout, is now called Outskirts. New name, major internal upgrades, or so I had heard....

Reading this sign on the front door did not increase my anticipation for what awaited me inside Outskirts.

But all was fine. The place is nice. Clean even! The band, Vinnie and The Lubricators, sounded great and I charged the stage to sing pretty all-right version of a John Mooney tune, "Move to Louisiana." My fave line from this song is..."One of these days I ain't gonna work no more.... Pack my things, head on down the road..."

Not sure if I'll book The Swinging Orangutangs into Outskirts. After all, we like to start LOTS of fights when we play.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Marking 50 Years

My only bird watching over this past weekend has been incidental--glances at birds squeezed in between chores, errands, and wile being generally otherwise occupied. The light and weather have not been good for digiscoping, so no new bird pix to share here today, though I hope ND will end the digiscoping drought.

These days, with kids going off in all directions and parents equally busy, our family almost never celebrates important dates on the actual dates. Instead we find a Sunday that's as close as possible to the date and make that the celebration day. Yesterday the Thompson family celebrated my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. Tomorrow (June 6, 2006) is their actual anniversary, but yesterday was the Sunday we could all gather.
June 6, 1956. I love how they are perfectly in step as they leave the church.

It was a two-part celebration. The first part was a reception after church at St. Luke's Lutheran, where 50 years ago, William H. Thompson, Jr. and Elsa Anne Ekenstierna were wed. My sister Laura and sister-in-law Jade did all the arrangements and food for this fab shindig (the rest of us served as support crew) then we sat back and watched 100 hungry Lutherans foraging. Have you ever witnessed a meal in a Lutheran church basement? Well, you haven't lived until you have.... However there were no sheet-pan desserts at this gathering, just a giant, delicious white cake, which the still-happy couple ceremoniously cut.
Hungry Lutherans at yesterday's reception.

Later the Thompsons gathered at my parents' house for more celebration (we were also celebrating the birthdays of two nephews, Jake and Nat). Had the weather cooperated we would have had this party at our farm, but the rain and hail kept things in town.

At one point, as I was tying his shoe for him, Jake, who turned 6 yesterday, said to me:
"You know Uncle Billy, I notice that you're going a little bald up here and here and here. Not like Pop Pop [my dad], it's too late for THAT poor guy. There are these creams that you can put on your head and in like two weeks you'll have hair there."
Jake tried out his Hair Club for Uncles pitch on me.

I thanked Jake and re-tied his shoelaces so that the two shoes were tied together.

It was a good day, busy as all get-out, but good. Highlighted by Julie's return from her weekend program in northeastern Ohio, where a gang from the OOS gathered at Holden Arboretum.

Much love, admiration, and joyful congratulations to Bill and Elsa for this incredible marital milestone. I'm looking forward to hanging out with them in North Dakota next week.

Making beautiful music together since 1956!

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Heading for the Potholes

A willet guards its nearby nest from one of the few perches in an untilled portion of prairie near Carrington, ND.

Yes, that's right. I leave Wednesday at the crack o' dawn for North Dakota and the Potholes and Prairies Birding Festival

This event is an annual highlight of our birding year (and we always take the whole fam damily), but this year, alas, I will be attending solo.

Some folks feel squeamish with no skyscrapers or Starbucks within sight. Not me. Being a native Iowan, I am perfectly at home in the wide open spaces.

So if you have an opening in your schedule next Thursday June 8 through Sunday June 11, this would be a great way to pass the time. I'll be playing music on Friday night at The Buffalo Museum in Jamestown, ND. Joining me will be the best birding fiddle player (or fiddle-playing birder) I've ever known, Jessie Munson. And we hope Ernie Haffert, the Jimmy Buffett of Carrington, ND will make an appearance, too. On Saturday night I'll join my folks on stage for their music show.
Jessie Munson and I played music (along with Julie Zickefoose and Jeff Gordon) at the New River Birding Festival last month.
Photo by Rondeau Ric McArthur.

Some of the old favorite birds I hope to see each year, include: Chestnut-collared longspur, upland sandpiper, white pelican (thousands), Baird's sparrow (with luck), black tern, and almost every duck in your field guide.

Upland sandpipers are common enough along the prairie roads in ND that you almost ignore them after a while.

I'll also be making a mad-cap dash to NW Minnesota in search of a Connecticut warbler, my lifelong jinx bird. Rest assured I'll report on that adventure here.

Hope to see you in North Dakota!

Friday, June 02, 2006

Pale-hearted Orb, Holding Water

Hang-nail moon last night
haunted my wakeful dreaming.
Clearly, it is cheese.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Like a Painting from Japan

Sunset's smooth brush strokes,
northward view, eternity.
Another day gone.

Buy A Duck Stamp

Today is the on-sale date for the 2006-2007 Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp (aka "the Duck Stamp"). The stamp's shelf-life is from July 1, 2006 to June 30, 2007. It costs just $15 and it gets you in FREE to any federal wildlife refuges that charge an entry fee. Plus, if you are so inclined, it also serves as your waterfowl-hunting license. The proceeds from Stamp sales (as much as $25 million per year) go to habitat acquisition for the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Paul Baicich has sent along a link to a list of reasons why bird watchers should by an annual duck stamp.

Buying a duck stamp makes good sense. It helps acquire habitat used by all birds (not just "harvestable" species). And, as bird watchers, it puts our money where our mouth is.

Make sure, when you fill out the purchase form, that you indicate that you are a birder or bird watcher. It's important that we birders demonstrate (in this tangible, numbers-don't-lie way) our interest in conservation and our growing economic impact. You can buy a duck stamp at your local post office, via the USPS online, or at many sporting goods retailers.

Just do it!

Atop the Weeping Willow

This handsome devil spent a few minutes singing from the weeping willow in the backyard this morning. Julie got several shots, but I (the clumsy digiscoper) managed only this one shot.

I remember the exact spot where, about this time of year, in 1974, I saw my first male orchard oriole. It was just past the little white church on Newell's Run, in a sycamore sapling poking up from the brush along the embayment.

The orchard male's combination of deep, dark cinnamon-rust and black is so understated for an oriole, but completely captivating to me.