Wednesday, February 28, 2007

True Sign of Spring


Forget the first robin of spring, the budding crocus, the sibilant spring peeper! The true first sign of spring around Indigo Hill, our old ridgetop farm in southeastern Ohio, is the return of the first male American woodcock. And his first peent!

Last night I wandered out onto the back deck for a moment of fresh air and solitude, but my reverie was broken by the nasal peent of our most loyal timberdoodle. This old boy is the first back each spring and, after five years or more of his performances, I know his routine by heart.

He starts well before deep dusk, peenting from the seeping, spring-soaked paths in the dell below the house. Inconsistent utterings, lackadaisical compared to his later efforts, drift up to our ears, until the precise foot-candle-power of daylight remains, at which point he twitter-flies up and into the meadow. How he knows when the light is just right, I can't say. Is it when it's just too dark for a late-lingering Cooper's hawk to see him clearly? It can't be calculated on the visual powers of owls, which can see and hear clearly in the deepest, blackest night. Or is it when he knows he'll look his swanky best for any female woodcocks foraging nearby?

All I DO know is that the performance of the dominant male woodcock in our meadow, and several other pretenders to the throne peenting from the fringe, is the most regular first sign of spring I see each February. And it seems to occur just when we're getting a bit hopeless that winter will ever decide to pack it in and leave. Spring slides her foot in the door, and it's all but written in the stars that the wheel of seasons has surely turned.

Last April I videotaped our male woodcock peenting his very best. I used a Canon Powershot 520A through my Swarovski 65mm spotting scope. Digi-videoing you might say.


This spring I hope to capture his whole sky dance on tape, if the gods are smiling and with me.

Tonight my parents came out for dinner and Mr. Woodcock started his serenade from the woods. But when it was time for him to take the main stage in the meadow path, he jilted us and flew across the woods and far away. Perhaps he was not 'feeling it' tonight and needed to make the scene somewhere else. Was his backstage buffet not enough. Did his handlers forget to fill his brandy snifter full of juicy earthworms?

The moon is bright enough that he might sky dance all night long, in which case, a show at dusk is not mandatory. No matter. I'll be outside in the gloaming tomorrow night, waiting for his nocturne. And I'll be smiling in the knowledge that spring, once again, has the upper hand.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

OOS, Owls, Oxford, OH

As noted in my previous post, we spent the weekend (and by we I mean the whole fam damily, including our youngest child, Chet Baker) hanging at Hueston Woods State Park, near Oxford, Ohio with the Ohio Ornithological Society. It was the OOS' first-ever Owl Symposium and a capacity crowd turned out.

Julie and I started the weekend's proceedings off on Friday night with some music, featuring our musician pal John Kogge of Oxford. We played acoustic folk and Americana music (if the Beatles, Wilco, and The White Stripes can be classified as Americana) for about three hours, and though it had almost nothing to do with birds, the assembled birders seemed to dig it just the same. Due to restraining orders and contractual complications, we were forced to play under the nom de tune of Chick Sandwich.

Chick Sandwich LIVE!: John Kogge, Julie Zickefoose, BOTB. Image stolen from Jim McCormac.


More than 250 bird watchers from Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana showed up for the Owl Symposium, the OOS's first-ever major event in the southwestern part of The Buckeye State. Saturday morning we gathered in the banquet room for breakfast and some owl-centric talks. Dave Russell an ornithology prof from Miami started with a talk about the physiology of owls. And, Larri, the rehab/demonstration female great horned owl he brought along contributed a nice pellet and a long squirt of white wash at exactly the right moment.

Kelly Williams-Sieg talked about her longtime banding project focused on migrating saw-whet owls in Ohio. I served as emcee for the weekend, and as bird sound DJ for the talks, cueing up the correct song on my iPod (special thanks to Denese and the folks at birdJam) and playing it through the sound system for all to hear.

The crowd at Hueston Woods was larger than expected.

Among the funniest moments of Saturday was when Julie Zickefoose, the first speaker of the afternoon, asked me to play the barn owl screech during her talk. She quoted Jeff Gordon's assessment of the barn owl's vocalization as "midnight on the bird clock from hell!" Big laugh!

After Julie's informative and movingly poetic talk, we headed out for some afternoon field trips. I led one of three groups to the Big Woods nearby. Our expectations were modest. This being a cold, gray winter afternoon with all the local lakes frozen solid, we expected to find few birds. We found more than a few, which was a nice surprise. Among the highlights: both vultures (they roost on the Hueston Woods lodge chimney), brown creeper, pileated, hairy, downy, red-bellied woodpeckers, a mix of duck species, two barred owls (one perched, one calling), horned larks, and a sleeping raccoon.

Glassing the trees for a pileated woodpecker.

We later found this pileated in the parking lot.

Back at the lodge, we reconvened for dinner and the weekend's keynote speaker, Denver Holt founder of The Owl Research Institute. To preserve the peace, I forked over rolls of cash to Phoebe and Liam, ( their college fund money) which they squandered in the arcade. (Liam later said: "Hey Dad Dude: That grabber-claw thing is a major rip-off!")

OOS Executive Director Jim McCormac worked the room, generating more new OOS members.

Denver Holt is a high-energy speaker. Think of a leprechaun/auctioneer on Jolt Cola and you'll get the idea.

Denver has spent more than a decade studying snowy owls on the tundra outside Barrow, Alaska. How lucky is that? He gets to spend all summer long with a species most of us get to see only once a decade or so.

It takes a real man to spend an entire summer on the tundra watching snowy owls and weighing lemmings.


Denver told amazing stories and showed amazing photos of the snowy owls he studies in Barrow, Alaska.

Because of his speaking style (constant motion, constant chatter) the OOS erected an elongated stage for Denver to use while giving his talk. His talk was fascinating--full of cool lore about the Great White Owl. An I'll bet Denver walked 5 miles back and forth on the stage while speaking. If you have a chance to see Denver speak, grab it! Later on, Denver led a rousing owl hooting competition in the nearby lounge.

Later Saturday night a huge ice/snow storm hit the area, forcing the cancellation of the late-night owling trips and forcing many attendees to change their plans for travel. Just driving from the lodge to our cabin was tricky since the snow plows had not yet passed.

Sunday morning dawned warmer, with most of the snow on the roads reduced to slush and puddles. We combined all the field trips into three different groups heading over into Hoosier Country (Indiana) to Brookville Lake. Brookville had the only expanses of open water around, so wintering and early-returning waterfowl were concentrated there. On the Dunlapsville Road causeway we had a dozen species of ducks, plus sandhill crane, cackling (Canada) goose, eastern meadowlark, and northern shrike!

Down the lake, at Sagamore Resort, we had even larger concentrations of ducks, plus bald eagles, and white-fronted geese (seen after we left). It was a great ending to a fun weekend with Bird People.

An OOSer scans the ducks to pick out the pintails, gadwall, wigeon, and green-winged teal. Lots of common goldeneye there!

Floating between the ice floes, many of the ducks were performing courtship displays, especially the goldeneyes,

After leaving our birding buddies still ogling the waterfowl at Sagamore, we high-tailed it to Oxford for a short visit with the Kogges in their charming abode. We ate too much, laughed real hard, then hit the pavement eastbound for home.

We're hoping to return to Oxford soonest to have a longer visit with John Kogge and family. I need to finish that Birds and Bees talk with him.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Running on Empty

Sorry, friends, for the cobwebs gathering on the Bill of the Birds blog. Due to travel commitments, weather complications, spotty Internet access, and a surplus of sloth and inertia, I have not been able to post here for several days.

We're JUST back from the Ohio Ornithological Society's Owl Symposium in Oxford, Ohio and I have some stories and images to share about it. But not tonight...for I hear the siren song of my pillow calling me to stagger away from the light and into the loving caress of darkest night.

I'll leave you, for now, with a photo of some happy birders on our Saturday afternoon field trip to The Big Woods, a remnant patch of old-growth deciduous forest at Hueston Woods State Park. We were scoping a barred owl roosting in a tree cavity.


¡Hasta mañana amigos y amigas!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Back to the Snow

Cecropia leaves
palming tropical sunshine
quetzal umbrellas



Our homeward flight was diverted to Cleveland this evening due to ice in Columbus. So our trip today went from a 4 am start on the fringe of the cloud forest in Guatemala to an unexpected touchdown in the Great White North. We'll try again for home tomorrow with a 4 am start in the snow. It's good to be back en los Estados Unidos.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Lost in the Cloud Forest

I love the cloud forest. Sure it's wet, rains a lot, can be freezing cold or faintingly hot and humid. It's not nearly as diverse birdwise as, say, humid lowland forest. There are snakes and other things that are dangerous, and yet I cannot get enough of watching birds in cloud forest habitat. This morning, without taking more than a few dozen steps, I was lost in the cloud forest.

Not literally lost.

But I was transported to another world.

Our Guatemalan birding group headed out in las horas pequeñas to the nearby cloud forest adjacent to the Biotop del Quetzal, a precious piece of habitat that's been set aside to preserve the local population of the resplendent quetzal. My group (we were in three small buses) stopped at Ranchitos del Quetzal just up the road from the entrance to the Biotopo. The very second we stepped out of the bus into the cool pre-dawn air, we heard birds and saw their dark shapes flitting through the underbrush.


Warning, storyline tangent ahead....

It's been like old home week here in Guatemala, seeing old friends, both human and avian. Keith Hansen is here, as is Alvaro Jaramillo, Peter Burke, Don DesJardin, plus my Guatemalan amigos y amigas de los pajaros, Ana, Marco, Hugo, Kenneth, Maynor, Claire, Claudia.

Among the friends with feathers are more than 20 species of "our" warblers, including Wilson's, black-throated green, hooded, Kentucky, worm-eating, yellow, black-and-white, yellow-rumped, orange-crowned. And there are many western warblers: Grace's, olive, Townsend's, hermit, and black-throated gray. The warbler highlight of yesterday was several sightings of GOLDEN-CHEEKED WARBLER (a lifer for me) that rare breeder in Texas. Many individuals of the species winter here in Guatemala, in the pine-oak forests just below the cloud forest. We found our birds at Rio Escondido, a private reserve not far from Cobán. What a kick to see this bird in the habitat where it spends most of its year.

But back to the cloud forest...we ticked off several species immediately: slate-throated redstart, unicolored jay, emerald toucanet, and a small feeding flock of warblers. Four or five common bush tanagers hawked insects on the ground beneath a street light.

Common bush tanager.

I had been to Ranchitos two years ago, on the First International Bird Watching Encounter and the kind folks hosting the event very much wanted me to find the resplendent quetzal. But it was not to be. We spent most of two days sitting out rain showers at Ranchitos and hearing the quetzals but not seeing them. This experience, and my eventual success more than a year later at a different Guatemalan site, was recounted in BOTB here.

Cloud forest view from Ram Tzul, an eco-lodge near the Biotopo.

It wasn't more than a few minutes after the first streaks of sun kissed the treetops that the shout of "Quetzal!" was heard. We all scampered up the driveway at Ranchitos, while craning our necks skyward for a glimpse of this majestic bird in the canopy. An adult female and what we think was a young male spent much of the next hour eating avocados and other fruits from the nearby trees. How completely captivating to see this, the national bird of Guatemala, in its natural state, seemingly at ease.

Conditions for photography were tough, but I managed a few shots when the birds worked their way lower, into the sub-canopy.

Resplendent quetzal resting between foraging flights.

Time for another avocado, the quetzal swooped up, grabbed a fruit, and found another perch.

All too soon it was time to leave. We never did see El Macho, the male resplendent quetzal. And by the way, did you know that the resplendent plumes on the adult male quetzal are not tail feathers or streamers? Instead they are long feathers that come from the wings, over the tail. He uses them to great effect in his courtship flights, which I've sworn to myself that I HAVE to see.

Perhaps I'll see El Macho perform the next time I'm lost in the cloud forest.

Shadows of Yesterday, Tomorrow


Sun cast palm shadow
ancient temple moss covered
many tomorrows

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Tikal Highlights: Quickly

Jeff (El Jefe) Gordon, Julie (The Sketching Science Chimp) Zickefoose, and I spent four fabulous days at Tikal late last week. Here are a few of the photographic highlights, hastily posted from an ephemeral Internet connection near Coban in the cloud forest of Guatemala.

White-fronted parrot.

Yellow-throated euphonia in the Gran Plaza at Tikal.

Olive-backed euphonia in the Gran Plaza.

Collared aracari just outside our hotel at Tikal.

Sketchefoose at Tikal.

Red-capped manakin--perhaps my favorite life bird thus far on this trip.

Jeff eschewed the still camera for video for this trip.

Temple at Tikal rising from the jungle. A nice perch for a black vulture.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Estamos en Guatemala


This is a shot out the window of our airplane, flying high over the Midwest of the United States. It could just as easily be an image of the snow on the wings of said plane at 6:00 am when we were getting de-iced on the runway of the Cowtown Airport.

But we made it into the friendly skies and are glad for that. We are now in Guatemala. No birding yet, but plenty of time to reunite with old friends and to revel in the fact that outside out window, the clay-colored robins are singing. Whereas, back home in Whippletucky, the snow's still flying.

We do miss the kids. And you, Chet Baker. Catbird and SB, thanks for covering the homefront!

These are the mountains of Guatemala, again, viewed from the plane.


We spent the afternoon shopping at the fantastic Artisans' Market near the Guatemala City Zoo. You like colorful, authentic textiles? This is Nirvana. So much beautiful hand-woven work--it's art, really. One of the things I love about this country is the thriving omnipresence of the indigenous culture.

Later on, we had a drinkypoo with several old friends here in Guatemala City, including Marco (pictured above with Zick), Ana Cristina, Bitty, Elena, and Estelita. Jeff "El Jefe" Gordon is here with us, too, adding immeasurably to the fun.

My Guatemalan aventura is officially started when I drink the first Gallo cerveza. Let the wild birding fracas begin!

We'll fly to Flores in the wee horas and then drive to Tikal tomorrow, so no posts for a few days. But I hope to come back laden with good bird pix. ¡Hasta luego, amigos! ¡Vaya con los pajaros!

Calling on Willyam Walliss


The Zick and I are sitting in the Cowtown Airport waiting to see if the snow foils our first joint attempt at visiting the tropics in 2007. I went to Florida in early January. Then she went to FL. Then I went again. At no time during MY time in the Sunshine State was it at all tropical.

So now we're aiming to visit Guatemala. And it's snowing like it's the Scottish Highlands outside.
We're even trying to fly out a day early to avoid tomorrow's REALLY bad weather. And yet it seems that Mutha Nature might have her way with us after all.

So I am calling on the spirit of Mel Gibson, wearing the mullet wig of William Wallace (I yam Willyam Walliss!) to guide us through this snowstorm and get us into the air, above the weather. Once airborne, we'll sit back, relax, and dream of trogons and motmots as we dribble coffee and free peanuts down our chins.

I found this amazing piece of folk art (Mel) in an Irish pub that I was dragged to kicking and screaming by my friends Lisa and Jeff. They insisted on playing darts and drinking beer. I indulged them.

So we're sitting and watching the snow pile up. Two, maybe three inches already...
Mel, can you give us a hand here, mate? We really need to see some birds.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Blue-winged x Cinnamon


I've been meaning to share this image--the only good one I got--of the hybrid blue-winged x cinnamon teal (the center bird) we saw at the Viera Wetlands near Titusville, FL on Wednesday, January 24. It's such a lovely bird, and clearly a drake (male).

He's got a faint version of the male blue-winged teal's face crescent, but with the overall warm, cinnamon tones of the drake cinnamon teal. Handsome!

I took this image with my digiscoping set-up. And that was really the only way to get this photo since the bird stayed on the far side of the marsh the whole time we saw it. My new Canon 30D with the 300mm lens couldn't touch it (but I still shot away then discarded every single image).

So I can see my future bird photography outings will be even more gear-heavy. I'll keep the Canon 30D handy on my shoulder, carry the spotting scope, and have the PowerShot 520A and digiscoping adapter in my pocket in case I need to "digi" something. For distant birds, there's no beating a spotting scope's magnification ability.

Here's a cropped version for your ogling enjoyment.


For more great digiscoping info and images, visit these two blogs:

Friday, February 09, 2007

Loon in a Box

While I was birding along the Cape Canaveral National Seashore in late January with Scott Weidensaul, Lisa White, and Liz DeLuna Gordon, our group was approached by a female park ranger who asked us if we were birders. The immediate follow-up question was: "Can you identify that bird on the beach up there by the guy in the blue jacket?"

Even though it was a quarter-mile away, we could see it was a large bird--almost certainly a common loon--and it was on the sand, looking fairly listless.

The ranger said, "I thought so. That's about the twenty-fifth one I've found this winter. Young loons come down here each winter and get dunked a few times in the surf and end up on shore. They don't know how to get back out to the open water. The ones we don't find probably starve or die of thirst. I'm going to get that one. Y'all can come and watch if you want."

We did want.

So we followed the officer up the access road to the next beach boardwalk. And by the time we'd gotten there, she was already coming back to the parking lot with the loon secured in a giant plastic box, complete with lid and breathing holes.
LoonInABox
"I keep this box in my cruiser for this very thing. I'll bet I've saved 20 loons this winter already."

LoonInABox2

We helped her load the box into her cruiser and followed her to an embayment a few miles away. This was where she let all the foundered loons go. It's a quiet lagoon on the bayside of the barrier island--perfect for a loon to get its wits back while doing a bit of easy fishing.

LoonInABox3

"I release them here and if they've got the will to live, they do fine on this lagoon until they're strong enough to take off. If they don't have the will to live, at least they're not on the beach, where the tide or something else will get them," she explained.

The ranger reached in and grabbed the young loon to set it free. Just then it gave the most haunting, spine-tingling series of high yodels--that quintessential call of the wild. I got chills and we alll just gasped in amazement. What a special moment!

LoonInABox5

As the ranger waded into the shallows and lowered the loon to the water, it gave yet another yodel, then struggled free and swam away, tentatively at first, then more strongly. When it began periscoping its head to look for food, we knew this one had the will to make it. We watched the young loon swim out to the middle of the lagoon, past several fishermen in kayaks. It began diving and preening. All was (at least temporarily) right with the world.

LoonInABox6


What a nice thing to be part of in the middle of a day of birding. And what a caring person the ranger was, to take time out of her work to help a fellow creature in need and to let us be a part of the experience. I was happy we'd visited into the Cape Canaveral National Seashore.

It held, for us, wonders unforeseen.

LoonInABox7

LoonInABox8

Apologies for the super-sized photos. Had to use Flickr, coz Blogger was acting more like Frogger.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Happy Birthday Andy T!


Today is my brother Andy's birthday (that's him on the left above, flashing the peace sign back in the turbulent late 1960's)!

I won't say how old he is, but we're 11 months apart and today he turned the same age as I am, and I'm 44.

Andy is the publisher here at BWD, he's a Councilman-at-Large in Our Fair City, a great singer/songwriter, a very good birder, AND a fabulous break dancer.

So Happy Birdday, AJ! And welcome to the 44 Club!

love,
BT3

Gun-totin' Granny?


This is NOT a post about the gun-totin' granny who shot a cardinal. You can wade into that quagmire elsewhere if you wish to do so.

Around these parts, we LOVES us our cardinals. After all, the northern cardinal is the state bird of The Buckeye State. We have at least 70 cardinals all winter long at our feeders and around the house.

Man, you ought to hear the racket they make when they ALL attack our windows at once. Sheesh!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

My Morning Ramble


Stepped out the door this morning to a world blanketed by a snow so powdery and light that the slightest motion or breeze brought a cascade of flakes floating all round my head, brushing my face like eyelash kisses.


Even the old field plough was rendered softer and seemingly more poetic in its fallow winter state, covered in whiteness. Sleep well old boy, for I'll need you come spring.


The flakes created a bit of Escher-like art along the east garden wall.


Our house, like the meadow bluebird box, had a new white roof. I wondered if this blanket of snow helped insulate the roosting birds on the cold night just ended.

Animal tracks beckoned me toward the sunrise. The birds began to sing their morning hymns--chickadee and titmouse, wren and sparrow, cardinal and flicker--all vocalizing as if to let Nature herself know they'd made it through to the dawning of another day.

Don't Perch So Close to Me!

I spotted this pair of house finches in the birch tree outside the studio windows yesterday. They were exhibiting some unusual behavior. Every time the male tried to perch closer to the female, she scolded him and drove him away.

There are a number of possible explanations for his behavior:

1. The sunshine had him feeling spring in the air and you KNOW what THAT means.
2. He was cold and wanted to "spoon" for a few minutes.
3. Our birch tree and nearby feeders have become a sort of avian singles bar and he's the local lounge lizard/letch.

As for her behavior (and I'm only hypothesizing here, since I lack female intuition/insight):

1. She's looking for more in a relationship than just nice plumage.
2. She wants him to behave more like a male cardinal and bring her a seed, first.
3. She is worried he has House Finch Disease (though I saw no signs of it).

Eventually he gave up and flew off. When he did, I believe I caught just the slightest hint of disappointment in her bright eyes.

I'd be happy to hear your theories about this interaction.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Song in My Head

Words
by Lucinda Williams
from her new album "West"

Lucinda's new album is getting knocked around by the critics. I heard this song while driving alone down a Florida highway late at night and immediately put it on heavy rotation. Critics be damned.

The lyrics deal with Lucinda's passion for writing, especially putting actual pen to actual paper. Those of us who write regularly might be able to relate.

Here in the so-called blogosphere, being able to create something meaningful with words is a daily ritual--some would call it a chore. I find it to be a great release. Some days it's inspired. Some days it's tired. But it's always a pleasure to share with the tiny portion of the world that occasionally tunes in here to BOTB.

Lucinda Williams is one of my all-time favorite artists. Her songs are never complicated. And you can always rely upon her to shoot you straight. Many of her songs are ones I would have to take on my Desert Island Disc--songs I'd be willing to listen to endlessly were I stranded forever on a desert island. "Blue," "Passionate Kisses," "I Envy the Wind," and "Essence" are just a few.

Lucinda sings these words in "Words," and more....

Deep down within me
words move in phases
frozen and still
till they decide
to melt and drip
over the pages
until that moment
they live inside.
. . . . .
once they get going,
they never waver
and they slip in between your
if, ands, and buts
. . . . .
they still remain my only companion
loyal and true to the very end
they'll never, ever completely abandon
ever give up the paper and the pen

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Get-R-Dunlin


Feeling a bit under the weather here at BOTB. So I'll reach back into the image archives for a shot I took last week at Merritt Island NWR of a solitary dunlin running across the mudflat at sunset. As the dunlin ran, it left a ripple on the water's surface--like the straight, white contrail from a jet across the sky.

And I thought I was cold LAST week. It's like 4 degrees outside here in SE Ohio. I seem to recall that I was wearing only a fleece jacket when I took this dunlin's photo at Merritt Island. It was a chilly 68 degrees!

Earlier in the week at the Space Coast Festival in Titusville, FL, several of us visited the Viera Wetlands. Jeff Gordon was toting his video camera that day and captured some of the day for posterity (or posterior). You can view Jeff's Birding Viera Wetlands video on his blog or via YouTube.

Nice job Jeff! Though it might pay to hire some professional actors next time...

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Cold-shouldered Hawk

Young red-shouldered hawk
Eyes squinting fierce, fiery
Snow, rabbit shadow

Friday, February 02, 2007

Flying Birds of Florida

A wood stork flew past me so close that I heard its wings before I saw it! Could not fit it into the frame, either.

With a new camera rig comes all kinds of giddy expectations. Now I'm not expecting to be Artie Morris, Art Wolfe, or even Art Garfunkel, but I DO expect to take better photographs with better gear.

Not so fast my friend.

Digital Photography Rule #13 clearly states:
No matter your perceived level of proficiency in photography, you WILL BE HUMBLED when photographing flying birds.

We've seen my shutterbuggery on still, cooperative birds with the camera set on BURST.
Well, amigos y amigas, it gets worse.

I really, really wanted to create jaw-dropping images of flying birds. So I set the camera on the aforementioned BURST. Click it over to the AV setting, which must stand for AVIAN, which is my subject matter after all. Then, I put the ISO "film" speed on 400 to capture motion.

All set right? Nope.

It's WAY harder to get the 300mm lens on a moving bird than I thought it would be. Even with three-plus decades experience aiming binoculars and scopes at birds, I found that I STUNK at finding the bird through the lens/viewfinder. And getting the camera to focus on the right bird bits.

Our last night in FL we finally had the kind of sunset where the roseate spoonbills would look fabbo, so several of us trekked on out to the Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island NWR to try our luck. Or lack thereof.

I felt like I was playing a game of pin the lens on the spoonbill. I was twisting and turning and getting buck fever and taking lots of shots of empty sky. This made me respect the truly gifted bird photographers out there all the more. And it made me curse them, too--but in a nice way.

I'd love to blow your mind with a gallery of quit-your-day-job-and-become-a full-time-bird-photographer images. But instead I'll just share these with you. A few are not so bad, I think. In the spirit of full disclosure, I need to say that these were taken over three separate days.

Any tips on in-flight photography are welcomed here. If you share them, I promise to leave you out of the cursing when I get my next chance to take pix of flying birds.

A willet landing along the Merritt Island causeway, showing off all field marks.

A ring-billed gull splashing down in the personal space of a lesser scaup.

Royal tern cruising the Cape Canaveral National Seashore. They do not have to pay $3 to get in. I did.

A brown pelican gives me the hairy eyeball as it flies overhead.

This white ibis was just flying by me, withing camera range. Then, it did something interesting...

It preened its wing in flight! How cool!

Sorry folks, I did not get any decent shots of flying spoonbills, so this will have to do.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Stumping the Science Chimp

Julie Sciencechimpefoose sniffing spring witch hazel.

If you are a regular reader of Julie Zickefoose's blog, you'll know that she's been doing a lot of animal track sleuthing lately around our snow-covered farm. I call Zick Science Chimp because she's got an insatiably hungry mind for natural history information. She is also blessed with a near-photographic memory, so once facts and info check into her brain, they don't check out. Her brain is like a Hotel California for nature knowledge.

Being both smart AND inquisitive, she sometimes pushes herself to the limits of conjecture in search of an answer to a nature riddle. Such was the case about 10 days ago when she shared with me her discovery of an unusual dark trail she'd found in the snow.

You have to realize that our 80 acres had loads and loads of creatures on it--many of which we rarely or never see. But we know they are here because of the clues they leave us in the form of tracks in snow or mud. Zick will drop onto all fours in a second, hand sweeping air toward her nose, to catch a whiff of a pile of unfamiliar scat. "Coyote!" she'll declare as she stands back up.

Jules e-mailed me the images she'd taken of a strange dark trail that paralleled the sidewalk for about 10 feet from our garage to our house. "Weird Pee Trail" was the subject line of her e-mail.
Strange dark trail indeed. The Science Chimp was perplexed.

Science Chimp has found bobcat scat, coyote dens, mink tracks, turkey dust baths, woodcock nests, and weasel tracks on our place. She's also able to ID birds' nests in the winter, when the leaves are gone and the nests stand out in the bare trees. She is an expert at identifying the former owner of single feathers--something I never seem able to do. She'll hold up a brownish-gray feather with white splotches on it. "Mourning dove?" I'll ask. "Nope! Barred owl flank feather!" After a few such failed guesses I usually challenge her to a game of whiffle-ball home-run derby.

"I can't figure out WHAT would leave such a dark trail in the snow?" she wrote. "Maybe an opossum that was sick?"

I laughed quietly to myself. "Hmmm," I said. "It's a rare day when the Science Chimp gets stumped! Let's review the data!"

Bill of the Birds: "The trail is from just outside the garage door and it parallels the sidewalk, right?"
JZ/Science Chimp: "Right"
BOTB: "And it looks like it is some sort of liquid, correct?"
JZ/SC: "Yep."
BOTB: "And it came out in a line, like it was released while the animal was moving?"
JZ/SC: "That's what I was thinking..."
BOTB: "And this was NOT there yesterday, so it must've happened last night?"
JZ/SC: "Definitely NOT there yesterday afternoon!"
BOTB: "From your photos it looks coffee-colored. Maybe lightened a bit by, say, half-and-half."

JZ/SC: [expletives deleted]

BOTB: "Well, the Science Chimp has struck again! That dark mysterious trail WAS made by a walking mammal. That's my leftover coffee. I poured it out of my travel mug as I walked from the garage to the house last night."

JZ/SC: [more expletives deleted]

Every now and then, we Science Chumps need to keep the Science Chimps of the world honest. It's our solemn duty.
To the left of the mystery trail is the discarded snow shovel, dropped when the trail was discovered. Note the dark handprints from where the Science Chimp knelt to smell the evidence.