Friday, August 31, 2007

Migrants and Moon

Moon full of itself
Urges felt in tiny hearts
Autumn's feath'ry tug

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Song in My Head

Say, since we're speaking of profanity...

The song in my head tonight comes straight out of Mark Hellenberg's excellent radio show on WOUB-FM (Athens, Ohio's NPR hook-up), called "Crossing Boundaries." Many times I've heard a song he's played and raced right to the laptop to find out more about the artist and often to buy the song.

Last night, on the way home from a late night at work which followed a butt-kicker of a day, I found myself gritting my remaining teeth, when out of the car's speakers came a song by an artist I'd never heard of: Jenny Owen Youngs.

Hmmm a new artist, I thought...cello intro is nice, soothing almost. This female vocalist has a funny twang to her singing, a slightly hoarse voice tinged with a bit of tremolo. She was singing a song which had a chorus that asked the Question For the Ages:
What the *%$# Was I Thinking?

OK I'm hooked...

Of course on Mark's show, her naughty words were blanked out. But, as I steered the van through the challenging curves on the road home, I laughed until I cried hearing this sweet-voiced young woman verbalizing my exact thoughts, accompanied by acoustic guitar, cello, and drums. It was a perfect meeting of new song and old feeling. I surrendered to the waltzing flow.

Within an hour of arriving home the song was mine, with all lyrics intact and not a bleep within hearing.

I do not recommend this song to you if four-letter words beginning in F are not your cup of tea. But for me the song strikes the perfect chord. At least for now. It's so nice when someone else says your bad words for you, and says them exactly right.

Tonight the Song in My Head is:
F*#* Was I?

by Jenny Owen Youngs

from her album:
atten the Hatches

I especially like this line:
Skillet on the stove is such a temptation.
Maybe I'll be the lucky one who doesn't get burned?

Check it out, if you're a brave soul.
But consider yourself warned about the bad words (and understand that if you sing along, you might get your mouth washed out with soap).


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Nighthawks At Dusk

This time of year, late August, when summer's long, slinky dress is getting tattered and torn, and tangled up in Autumn's briers, as dusk falls upon the land, the nighthawks emerge on the northern horizon. Their dark scimitar shapes contrast starkly with the peach wash of the sky. Their diligent, loping wing strokes carry the nighthawks along the ridges, where the last heat of the day may yet hold a dragonfly or two for them to scoop up on the wing.

I love the nighthawk evenings. I've been watching for them every fall these last three decades. My first one was during band camp when I was a 10th grader. As we stood at attention on the marching field, the dew covering everything, the dark birds of passage came among us. Hundreds upon hundreds of them, swooping and cutting the wet evening air. A girl in the trombone section screamed "They're BATS!"

I alone among my bandmates knew the true identity of these winged creatures. Common nighthawks making their way south in the autumn twilight.

Here on our ridgetop farm we've got a great spot for watching the fall march of the nighthawks.
Two nights ago we had several waves, each with about 25 birds. We did our best to photographs them, but the fast-moving birds in low light proved to be quite a challenge.

Overhead, the nighthawk's hawklike shape is readily apparent.

I love how this image shows the bird's wing slashes, on the downstroke.

Passing by the birding tower just about eye level.

Such boomerang wings propel the nighthawk steadily southward.

Following a swoop downward after an insect, a nighthawk powers itself back to migration height.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Total Lunar Eclipse

Last night's full moon was glorious in its ascent, rising up behind the hills to the east of the farm. By 9:00 pm it had cleared the trees and illuminated the meadow with its pale light.

But tonight's full moon had a secret. It was going into hiding just before it set.

When the clouds cleared about 5 am, Julie woke me up and we slipped outside to witness the lunar eclipse. In the image above the moon is just emerging from total eclipse, where the Earth passes between the moon and the sun, casting its shadow over the moon's surface. My images are blurry because I do not have a cable release for my camera (yet), so the tremor of pushing the shutter button causes some distortion. Each exposure lasted more than 10 seconds.

Shortly after the total eclipse, the moon gained a bright edge as the Earth moved out of alignment with the sun. Clouds and the moon's dropping behind the western horizon stopped the show here. We could hear migrant warblers calling overhead in the dark. A screech-owl temolo-ed from the ashes by the garage. From the sumac tangle along the north border a yellow-billed cuckoo called, cu-cu-cu-cu.

Full moons often affect me. I get clumsy--stubbing toes and bumping my head. I get edgy. I can't sit still, can't sleep deeply. I wonder if it's the same for birds, and that's why they get that migratory restlessness, or zugunruhe, when the moon is full...

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Ye Olde Brytish Byrd Faire

Ahh! The British Birdwatching Fair! The world's largest gathering of bird aficionados--kindred spirits to us all. Looking for something--anything--having to do with birds? It's probably here. Lots of neat new products, great books we'll never see in the U.S., clothing MADE FOR BIRDING! And the Bird Fair even has a beer tent. U.S. birding festivals please take note....

More than 20,000 bird watchers wend their way to north-central England each August for this unique event. I try to go as often as I can, but as travel to Europe has gotten more expensive, it's gotten tougher to make it to Rutland Water, an RSPB reserve that is the site of The British Birdwatching Fair.

The BirdFair is set up inside of several huge tents, called marquees. I think there were at least five different marquees, plus two optics marquees, and an art marquee. Even though I spent parts of three days there, map in hand, I never really felt I got the lay of the land. Everywhere I looked I saw something else interesting and someone I wanted to talk with about birds and birding.

Perhaps the most fabulous thing about the BirdFair is the set up for trying optics. In two different optics marquees perched on the shore of Rutland Water, all the major optics companies are set up, side-by-side. This allows attendees to sample the optics under actual field conditions, looking at actual wild birds! I'm not sure what the sales figures are, but I saw a steady stream of grinning bird watchers walking out of the optics marquees clutching new optics. I was sorely tempted to buy several binocs I tested. Thank the gods that the exchange rate made such purchases insanely expensive for me.

The optics marquees were jammed all day long with eager bird watchers sampling the world's finest binoculars and scopes.

The BirdFair always features a large number of bird and wildlife artists in the art marquee. Nearly all of the participating artists contribute their time and talents to creating a large mural

The BirdFair annually chooses a bird conservation cause to support. This year it was highlighting the world's most critically endangered birds and these species were painted onto the BirdFair mural by the participating artists.
I got to hang with my pals from Guatemala at the BirdFair. They were there telling people about all the wonderful birds that can be seen in their lovely country.
Dozens of other organizations were also at the BirdFair promoting birding tourism in their regions and countries. This booth is promoting birding in Uganda.

I got to see several dear friends at the BirdFair. Among them were (from left) Nicholas Hammond of The Wildlife Trusts, Lisa White from Houghton Mifflin, and David Quinn, bird artist extraordinaire.

While visiting with Mavourneen from Lawson's Birdwatching Tours (at left, back) I was surprised to see this very friendly Englishman wearing a T-shirt (from High Island in Texas) with one of Julie's designs on it. Had to snap a pic of that moment! It's a small world after all....

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Bird Images of a Weekend

Our Bird Spa has a very powerful bubbler that pumps water up through a hole in a fake rock. Birds cannot resist it.

I spent some time in the photo blind this weekend watching the birds coming to the water feature and got a few usable images. By 1 pm on a hot summer day, there are always birds at our water feature. But bathing birds, being wet and less able to fly, are putting themselves in a risky spot, so they are wary and skittish. There's no sneaking up on them. But the photo blind seems to conceal just enough to make it possible to take images of bathing birds.

I did not get anything stellar. A few images of goldfinches, a few young, naive cardinals. I'm still learning how to use this camera and lens.

A female goldfinch comes in for a drink.

Then slips into the water for a dip.

And starts splashing water over its plumage.

It must feel good to get totally soaked on a hot day.

This young cardinal was attracted to the water but never did bathe.

One image that I did NOT get from the blind was this shot of a young male Baltimore oriole. He was attracted to the water feature while I was inside the house replenishing my liquids.
This young male Baltimore oriole hung over the bath for 10 minutes but never went any closer.

Ain't that how it always works? You leave the photo blind because the sun has come out and it's 437 degrees F in there, you are dizzy and careen wildly toward the shade and air conditioning of the house, and THAT'S when the oriole shows up. Quick like a bunny I grabbed the camera at my side (it had actually melded itself onto my polyester disco shirt) and snapped off a few frames through the studio window.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Birds of Britain

Biggleswade sounds like something or someone from Harry Potter. "All right Ms. Biggleswade? Wot's the rumpus?"

I freely admit I did not have sufficient time for birding while in Britain attending the British Birdwatching Fair. And I'm so upset about this that I'm verging on calling it the British Birdwatching UnFair... ok, not really.

Even so, I managed to squeeze in a few moments here and there gawking at our feathered mates living across the pond. The weather did not make it any easier--it was great weather for ducks. Still, it serves me right for cramming a 10-day trip into five days.

On the final morning in England, my pal Nicholas Hammond took me birding in the fields behind his home in Sandy, Bedfordshire, also known as Sandy Beds. We walked along the Ivel River, hands covering our binocs from the mist and drizzle. And the birds put on a good show.
Lapwing. Photo by Chris Gomersall.

I finally got to see my favorite European bird, the lapwing, and we enjoyed good looks at kingfisher, great crested grebe, mute swan, sedge warbler, dunnock, European robin, green woodpecker, carrion crow, rook, European goldfinch, chaffinch, wren, and song thrush. Don't you love it how the names of English/European birds are just one word? As if there is no other wren than their wren, no other kingfisher, blackbird, and so on.

We saw other species I am sure, but I was just blissing out--not taking field notes.

The Ivel River flows along the garden edge of Nick and Yvonne Hammond's home in Bedfordshire.

These young mallards did not seem to mind the rain.

I'm hoping this shot of a great crested grebe will make the cover of National Geographic magazine.

In five minutes of watching this elderberry bush/tree we saw blackcap, sedge warbler, European goldfinch, chaffinch, dunnock, and blackbird eating the berries.

The one day in London on the front end of the trip got me close to a couple of common city species. These I encountered in the pair of parks that are in the middle of my old neighborhood there, Bloomsbury in the West End of London. I lived there, on Bedford Place, as a university student in 1982–83 and still count that year as one of the best of my life. I've been back a few times and always get a special tingle when I walk through Russell Square Park with its blackbirds and wood pigeons and blue tits (more on this later).

Feeding rock pigeons in Russell Square Park.

Pigeons and statues just seem to go together. Well, I guess only the pigeons ACTUALLY go....

Rooks catching some heat from the chimneys of a village home hear Stamford.

A juvenile blackbird, looking like an American robin dipped in oil, hustles for earthworms in central London.

Rock pigeon in its native haunts.

Wood pigeons are huge and show bright white patches on both sides of the neck.

Sorry for the dearth of exciting bird images to adorn this post. I elected to leave the 300mm lens at home due to its weight and the certain knowledge that comes from knowing when to say when. I knew I was not going to be able to take many bid pix on this trip--between the weather and the schedule there was little opportunity. So I got my buzz in other ways: visiting with old friends, making new ones, and just soaking up the vibe from the one place in the world where bird watchers are more numerous than anywhere else.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Hillbilly in Piccadilly Circus

Dear BOTB Readers:

My apologies for the gap in posts here at Bill of the Birds. Geez, I get a swank new header for the BOTB blog homepage and immediately abandon my post. In fact, I fled the country.

I've spent the past six days in the UK attending the British Birdwatching Fair. While there, when I had Internet access, I did not have me bloody laptop with me. And when . . . well, you know the story, mate. I should just shut me ol' piehole and get back to bloggin'.

The BirdFair was great, the people friendly, the pubs quaint, and the weather, well the weather was quintessentially English--mostly rainy and cool.

I'll have a few posts to share about the BirdFair, but until then, I'll leave you with a photo taken of a hillbilly in Piccadilly Circus, deep in the heart of London.



Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Birds

This evening the birds were active around the farm, but they seemed to be completely NOT in the mood to be photographed. Indigo bunting, blue-winged warbler, white-eyed vireo, Carolina wren, ruby-throated hummingbird, chipping sparrow--all were camera shy in the orange wash of the evening's sunset.

So I found a calmer, more photogenic subject: a massive tiger swallowtail that was nectaring on some ironweed along the edge of the meadow.

Here are just a few of the frames I burned.

Monday, August 13, 2007

A Week in Motion

We all spent the past week in western New York at The Chautauqua Institution where Julie and I have been giving lectures and teaching the occasional course for the past six years. Chautauqua a lovely place to spend a week, especially when it's sunny and nice.

Normally, we slow down during our week at Chautauqua. This year our stay was nipped off at both ends by family events, so instead of seven days, we got five. Since our typical travel style makes Hannibal look like he had only carry-on luggage, we also lost most of a day to packing/loading and undoing/re-doing the same. Thus our time was short and we never seemed to stop moving--there was always something we needed to do.

Adding to this was the fact that our Chautauqua weather luck ran out--it rained for some or all of every day. This was no huge deal for me because I had a boatload of work to do, so I knew I was going to be inside most of the time. Phoebe, Liam, and Julie were more affected because they spent more time walking and biking the Chautauqua grounds. Chet did not mind, because, rain or shine, there were still dozens of strange dogs--many of them designer breeds--for sniffing and chasing.

I think I see why people stay at Chautauqua for the entire nine-week season--it makes it more possible to find time to chill out.

The kids spent the days in Boys & Girls Club making new friends and talking themselves hoarse. If we go back next year, Liam will be riding his bike everywhere--he's now mastered the art of riding a two-wheeler sans training wheels.

The Bird, Tree, & Garden Club has been monitoring the purple martin colonies at Chautauqua for years. This year they set a new record for the number of fledglings. Jack Galvan, who is the lead martineer, said the martins ate a ton of red admiral butterflies this summer. Imagine having to catch a butterfly for your food!

I was disappointed not to get out for a sail on the lake this year. That totally made last year's visit for me--being able to sail solo in a tiny Sunfish on a huge expanse of water. Alas, there simply was no time..
OK enough whining! We're back home and seeing lots of very active birds around the farm, signaling the advent of fall migration. And it seems like only yesterday I was listening for the first blue-gray gnatcatcher of the spring.

Reminds me of the fabulous song sung by Sandy Denny and the lads from Fairport Convention:
Who knows where the time goes....?

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Free Couch!

There's a phenomenon I witnessed two Mays ago in rural West Virginia. To get someone to haul away something for you, like an old couch, you put the item out near the road and put a case of beer on it. You also put a big FREE sign on the item.

While helping out at The New River Birding Festival, near Fayetteville, WV, we stay at Opposum Creek Retreat. Driving to and from the field trips we passed this couch with a FREE sign and a case of beer. It sat there for several days of rain. Then the beer was gone and only the couch remained.

Hmmm. They used Budweiser. I wonder if it had been a case of a different brew if the outcome would have been different?

Now I am uncertain whether or not this same barter-for-hauling system is used in other parts of our fair country. But I'd certainly be interested in hearing from some of you if it is.

Until then, party on!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Mystery Photo

The other day, while working on a presentation we'll be giving soon, Julie asked me for some images of nature patterns. We were working in Keynote, Apple's digital presentation software that is vastly superior to PowerPoint.

The good thing about Keynote is that you can change things in your program right up until the very last minute (unlike the slide-based shows our ancient ancestors were forced to use). The bad thing about Keynote is that you can change things in your program right up until the very last minute. This is what we were doing.

I sent Julie this image to use in the program. Can you tell what it is in the photograph? Do you think it's snow on the ground or clouds in the sky?

While I wait for your answers I think I'll fiddle around some more with the program. After all, we don't have to present it for another hour...

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Monday, August 06, 2007

In the Doghouse

One recent morning I spent a few blissful hours in the Doghouse.

I don't mean the doghouse--like I did something wrong--I'm there often enough.
No, I mean the Doghouse photo blind that I got for Christmas last year.

Before the summer sun got the temps high enough to bake a pie, I set the blind up near the garden on the north side of the house. This garden is in full bloom these days, thanks to the green thumbs of Farmer McZickefoose. While I was futzing around with the blind, three different ruby-throated hummingbirds came by to slurp some nectar. That was a good sign.

I set up the blind in a strategic place and waited. Here are a few of the images I got.

Female ruby-throated hummingbird up to her lores in a salvia flower.

Male ruby-throated hummingbird at rest. Note how 'molty' he looks.

He keeps one eye on the hole in the blind as he probes the blossoms.

The Mad Hummingbird.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Playing Hooky With My Dad

PNC Park in Pittsburgh, home of the Pirates. It's just like the fabulous stadiums of yesteryear.

On the way home from work last night I was listening on the radio to my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates playing the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. As the Bucs were thrashing the Redbirds, the announcer said something that totally changed the course of my 'today.'

"The Buccos play the Cards tomorrow afternoon at 12:35 pm. Still plenty of great seats available!..." My ears pricked up and my brain started rolling over the idea....

I'd been wanting to take Phoebe to a Pirates' game--it would be her first professional baseball experience. And I'd toyed with the idea of taking my dad to a game in celebration of his upcoming birthday. I'd at least check out the possibility once I got home.

At home it was all systems go. I got the tickets (Club Level seats with access to air conditioning--crucial for my dad who HATES the heat.) Got permission from all sources, including Ground Control in Whipple. Laid out my nerdy-fan-o-rama Pirates jersey and hat to wear to the game.
Outside PNC Park, posing with the statue of The Great One, Roberto Clemente.

Phoebe was way stoked for the adventure, and so was Pop-Pop (as Phoebe calls him). Despite a latish start and bad traffic just south of the 'Burgh, we made it in time for the first pitch and even stayed through the extra innings to watch the Pirates emerge victorious, 5 to 4.

The best hitter in baseball, the amazing Albert Pujols, future Hall of Famer. Too bad he plays for the Cardinals.

If you've never been to PNC Park in Pittsburgh, it's an amazing stadium. And I'm not just saying that as someone who suffered through 30 years of attending games at the cavernous and cookie-cutter Three Rivers Stadium with its lime-green Astroturf. PNC is a baseball fan's dream stadium.
The Pittsburgh skyline towers behind the outfield walls at PNC Park.

I always take binoculars to baseball games, both to see the action up close and to watch for the birds of serendipity. Today's ballpark bird list: American crow, ring-billed gull, red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, rock pigeon, mourning dove, house sparrow, chimney swift, European starling.

Our Club Level seats turned out to be a huge blessing--beer, food, AC, bathrooms only steps away. Only two things that could have made it better would have been to see my dad's name up on the Jumbotron with Happy Birthday wishes, and a nice, soft foul ball I could have caught and given to Phoebe.
Pirates Fans in the hot sun.

Still it was a blast to play hooky from work on a hot summer afternoon and go to a baseball game. I used to do this often in summer when I lived in Baltimore and worked alone in an small office. The Orioles stunk, Memorial Stadium was scary, and the bleacher seats were only a few bucks. All I needed to hear Jon Miller or Joe Angel or Chuck Thompson say was "Still plenty of great seats left for today's game!" And I was gone.

On the way home Dad and I talked and laughed and told stories, while Phoebe relaxed in back and polished of the final Harry Potter (or is it Horrid Potty?) book.

It was wonderful to have my dad all to myself for a few hours. He's an amazing man. I think today was as much a present for me as it was for him.
Moments later the Pirates scored the winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning. High fives all around.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Shining Through

Afternoon sun, end of July
still air filled with cicadas' whine.
On the windowsill, objects collected from this life
a wire bird, macaw feather,
box turtle sculpture,
the empty vase of an indigo hue
all catch the sun shining through.
You point out this moment of light
and give it to me
to capture
and to keep.