Thursday, November 29, 2007

White Geese Galore


Why do thousands of bird photographers go to Bosque del Apache every November? Well the light is amazing. The vistas are wide open. And there are hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes, snow geese, Ross's geese, and just about every kind of duck you can find in your field guide.

Furthermore, the birds are somewhat acclimated to humans along the refuge's causeways and the birds tend to have routines that they follow. This allows nature photographers, with their lenses as long as a Cooper Mini, to get in position to take some really, really, really nice bird pictures.

For bird photography pikers like me, Bosque is a paradise, too. I can take some shots of a cooperative bird, change my settings wildly, take some more pix, change again, check them out on the camera's screen, take some more. You get the scoop.

We had an afternoon off late in our week at Bosque and just when the light was perfect, we turned a corner on the Marsh Route and found a newly flooded field chock full of resting, foraging snow and Ross's geese. So we joined the skirmish line of bird photographers already in place, snapping away.

Soon the geese took off in a sudden fright. Then they returned. They kept coming and going for the next hour and I thanked the gods that I was not shooting film because I took more than 500 frames.

Here are some of the more acceptable results.
The flooded field with resting geese. Mostly snows with a few blue geese and a good number of Ross's mixed in.

Spooking into flight.


A great chance to compare Ross's goose (L) with snow goose (R).

Coming back around to land in the flooded field again. This looks to me like the shots of the imprinted birds in Winged Migration.

Coming in for a landing. White birds with black primaries! How beautiful.

Splashing down.

Each bird created its own wave as it splashed to a landing.

And then they were up again. A coyote scared them into flight. Cottonwoods providing the backdrop.


As the flock passes overhead, you do NOT want to look up with your mouth open.


Droplets of water still clinging to the belly.


A beautiful blue morph snow goose.

Same species, different color morph.


While leading a trip on the first full day of the Festival of the Cranes, our groups spent some time scanning a flock of snow geese. I wanted to point our some Ross's geese to our vanful of birders.

While scanning with my spotting scope, I noticed a blue morph bird that looked quite small by comparison...


It was a blue morph Ross's goose--a very rare bird. I'd seen this morph before here at Bosque, but not for a while. Everybody was really excited to see this bird. We radioed the other van and got them over to see it.

A closer look at the rare creature. Check out the tiny head. Note, too, the head of the snow goose in the foremost foreground, showing the black grin line on the bill. Most of the other white birds in profile in this shot are normal Ross's geese (sans black grin lines on their much smaller pink bills).

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Night Falls on Bandelier


Canyon shadow climbs
roost call of canyon towhee
somewhere piñon burns

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Avocado Falcons

One of the very special birds that was hanging around Bosque del Apache NWR last week and for several week prior was an aplomado falcon. Aplomado is a Spanish word meaning lead-colored--referring to the bird's gray coloration. What you really notice about the bird is not the gray back, but the orange chest and boldly marked head.

Actually there were at least TWO of these rare, endangered birds on the refuge and I got to see both of them just an hour apart on the same day. Radio contact with birders still watching the other falcon confirmed the presence of two birds.

My son (and namesake) Liam, who was along for one of the field trips, asked why we were so excited. I pointed out the bird and said, "THAT'S a rare bird called an aplomado falcon!" Liam replied: "Oh. . . . What's an avocado falcon?" By the glint in his eye I could tell he was pulling his old man's leg.

These aplomados are from a captive breeding program that is trying to re-establish the population in the desert Southwest. Everyone was all abuzz about seeing these lanky falcons and a few of the harder-core birders were wondering if they were "countable" or not since they or their parents were once held in captivity. The birds had bands on the legs but seemed otherwise wild and well adjusted. We watched them eat dragonflies and the occasional small mammal or bird.

It was great to show the birds to a variety of people in our various birding trips. I'd seen the species twice before--both times at Laguna Atascosa NWR in South Texas where another aplomado hacking program has had great success over the years. But these looks at Bosque were better, with more cooperative birds.

I've got a lot more posts from NM to share. The only problema is that I still have to write them! In the meantime, here are a few of my aplomado images--all of these are digiscoped from a great distance.

The falcon stretching in the late-afternoon sun.

Despite my photography skills you can actually see the falcon's head pattern in this image.

A harrier decided to harass the aplomado.


To see how a pro digiscoper does it, visit Jeff Bouton's Leica Birding Blog and check out his pix of the aplomado falcon. I still have to fetch some of my digital camera images and if I have anything aplomadoish worth sharing, Ill certainly do so.

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Eating in NM

During our New Mexico birding adventure we had a lot of wonderful meals. After a day or so, you get used to it when the servers ask you "green or red?" as you order your entree. They want to know if you want green chiles or red chiles with your meal. I have to say, I ate plenty of both and liked them equally well. If pressed to chose, I lean a little green...

Among our favorite places for NM mastication this year were The Socorro Springs Brewery in Socorro (good food, great beer, and WiFi!) and Sabroso in Arroyo Seco (where we had a nice meal with our friends Caroline and Douglas and fabulous service from the staff).

Here is one NM eating establishment we did not patronize. Perhaps it was the name.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving


Dear All:

Today I'm reflecting on all I'm thankful for (it's a long list) and hope you are, too. Among the things I am thankful for are all the days in my life that I've been able to spend watching birds, such as these sleeping sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico.

And I'm thankful for all of you, too. Happy Thanksgiving!

Bill of the Birds

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

New Mexico in Low Light

New Mexico is called The Land of Enchantment but it could just as easily be called The Land of Amazing Light. I can see now why photographers and artists come here to pursue their creative muses--the light goes from pale lemony to deep tangerine to milky blue and then back again in the course of a day. The air is clear and the vistas are vast. And then there are the places where the desert meets the mountains. It's one giant inspiration of light.

Here are just a tiny few of the digital images I've shot this week in New Mexico's low light--early and late in the day.


Pintails at dawn over Bosque del Apache NWR.


At dawn the birders and photographers gather on the Flight Deck for the morning fly out of the cranes and waterfowl.


A pre-dawn blizzard of snow geese.


Cranes and waterfowl darken the dawn sky at Bosque.


Phragmites is an invasive scourge, but its heads look feathery in the afternoon sunlight.


Sunset uses the same pink paintbrush on the desert and the mountains.


A drake pintail in the predawn glow.


Cranes are still flying well after sunset.



A Chihuahuan raven croaks at its flockmates.


Coots a half hour before first light.


The morning sun peeks through a notch in the rim of Water Canyon.


Pintails over pink clouds at Bosque.


Gleaming wires near El Salto del Rey.


A tangerine sunset from Arroyo Seco.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Running into a Roadrunner

On the way down I-25 southbound to Socorro from Albuquerque, there are some large impoundments off to the east that give a visiting birder his/her first taste of what's to come farther south, at Bosque del Apache NWR. At these impoundments, there are usually several dozen sandhill cranes there as well as a nice mix of waterfowl--northern shovelers, northern pintails, gadwall, mallards, and a few coots. Harriers course low over the cornfields. Chihuahuan raven and American crows are black spots on the always blue sky.

We usually pull over and glass the ponds from the highway which is neither safe nor satisfying. But this year, with a little extra time on our hands, we decided to head off the highway to try to get closer to the action. Once of I-25, we immediately missed the hard left turn onto the frontage road, so we continued east to see what we could see. While turning around in a dusty patch of gravel we saw a roadrunner, largest of our North American cuckoos, moving through the brush.

I LOVE roadrunners. They seem to be part bird, part dinosaur, and part snake. Like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland roadrunners always seem to have somewhere else they've gotta be, right now. They rarely linger for a bird watchers to get a binocular full of them.

Roadrunners can also be fairly shy. But unlike most other roadrunners I've ever encountered, this one came toward us.

We grabbed our cameras and here's what happened.


Running out of the brush. Not sure it sees us yet.

The roadrunner stops to survey the scene. It clearly sees the humans in the funny hats with large, shiny tubes making clicking noises. And oohing and ahhing.


It decides it's OK and starts to walk methodically past the front of our car.


Stopping again to ensure we blow maximum megapixels on its back-lit beauty.

Time to scoot. And no, it did not go BEEPBEEP!


And then it was gone. Off to snag, smash, and gobble some poor, too-slow lizard.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Owl Cave Owl

On the field trip we led to Water Canyon, near the entrance to the canyon, we espied this roosting great horned owl. It was a few minutes before I realized that the shape of the cave's outline was owl-like itself.

An owl perching in an owl-shaped cave. One of those little moments of Zen encountered while looking at birds.

Water Canyon is one of the world's most wonderful places. More on this in the nearest future.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Images from Bosque

Yes. I am in New Mexico. At the Festival of the Cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Which, given the birds present, could also be called the Festival of the Crows, Mallards, White-crowned Sparrows, Snow Geese, or Red-tailed Hawks.

Loads to share but lo siento, pero no tengo el tiempo ahora.

Have been leading a couple of field trips each of the past two days and have more in the next two days. It's eye-popping there are so many birds. And the regulars and locals here at the FOTC are saying the geese and crane numbers are low because of the warmish winter thus far.

Here are two images I captured this morning. One at about 5:50 am and one at about 5:50 pm. I hope you like them. Apologies for the cobwebs growing on BOTB. I promise to be a more reliable blogger in the days, weeks, years to come. Hasta mañana.


A blizzard of snow geese at dawn, viewed from the Flight Deck where everyone gathers t watch the "fly out" as the birds wake up.

Northern harrier wheeling against cottonwoods along the Marsh Route.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Birds Seen Early and Late

This morning, before I had to make it to an 8:30 meeting, I got out to see a few birds. And after the meetings were over, there was a bit more birding until the cloak of darkness fell at 6 pm.

This post is necessarily short since tomorrow starts with an early morning bird trip I'm supposed to help lead. Must...get...post...up....before.....sleep......

Since we had such fun with this week's Mystery Bird Quiz (congrats to Patrick Belardo for being the firstest with the bestest guess), see if you can guess where I went birding today, both early and late.

I promise to have more meat on the blog sandwich later in the week.

Eurasian collared dove.


Two plumages of white-crowned sparrow.

Enormous blackbird flocks.


Stately sandhill cranes.

Cranes looking good in front of yellow cottonwoods.

Wheeling flocks of hundreds of ducks and geese at dusk.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Mystery Bird

It's been a while since I've posted a Mystery Bird photograph. It's not that I don't have TONS of horrible bird images in which the subject species is utterly unrecognizable (I do). In fact I seem to have a knack for capturing that exact kind of image.

It's just that the whole Mystery Bird thing is done, and done pretty well, in so many other places that it makes a body think: Does the world really need another Mystery Bird Blogger?

This deep philosophical pondering is immediately forgotten when I need to make a new post and... Hey! I know! Let's do a Mystery Bird thing!

So here it is. A bird photographed this autumn in these United States. Yes, it's flying. Yes, it's flying away from you (and me). And them's all yer hints fer now.


Place all of your guesses in the comments section. Good luck and be careful out there.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Songs in My Head on Veterans Day

Today is Veterans Day, a holiday that often passes without much notice, especially for younger people. I was never in the service, but my dad was. He served in the Army during the Korean War. He was lucky and talented enough as a musician to spend his service time stateside, playing in the Second Army Band. That's him standing in the middle-back of this quartet.

I got to play a couple of songs with my dad today at my regular Sunday jazz gig. He came down to the hotel to sit in on piano for Bruce DeMoll (himself a veteran of the US Navy Band during the Korean War). Both Dad and Bruce really came into their own as musicians during their time in the service.

More than 1,000 World War II veterans die every day, according to researchers who worked on Ken Burns' incredible documentary, "The War." And with them go their stories, memories, and experiences. Our World War I veterans are nearly all gone, now. My grandmother Thompson, who died in 1997 at the age of 97, remembered, as a young girl, hearing Civil War veterans who worked on her dad's farm, talking about that great conflict. Imagine that!

Two songs came to my ears today--songs that made me think about Veterans Day, and about all those who have served. They also made me think about the horrible waste, and utter sadness and senselessness of war--any war.

The songs are:

Day After Tomorrow
by Tom Waits
The version I heard was sung by Linda Thompson
on her recent album "Versatile Heart."
You can hear her version in the auto-player here.

and

And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda
by Eric Bogle
I heard a version sung by Christy Moore.
You can hear a version sung by the song's author, here.
And a short sample of the Pogues' version is here.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Where Dusk and Dawn Are Deafening

Last November we went to Socorro, New Mexico for the Festival of the Cranes held annually at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

Tens of thousands of waterfowl and sandhill cranes spend the winter on the refuge. Every morning the birds—primarily sandhill cranes and snow geese—stage a huge fly-out just after dawn, heading to the nearby fields to eat grain. Every evening the birds fly back in to roost for another night in the waters of the refuge, safe from predators. Headed in or headed out, the birds make a terrific noise--nearly deafening at times.

The birders attending the festival are there every morning and evening to witness the spectacle. Oh my, it's bone-chilling cold out there in the desert early and late in the day. But the birds, the landscape, and the light all combine to make it a magic place to be.

Last winter I captured a bit of (admittedly poor) video of a small gathering of cranes and geese at dusk coming in to roost, along the road into the refuge.



Moments later, the light left us for good, so we headed to the Owl Bar in nearby San Antonio, NM, to warm up with a cold beer and to challenge our constitutions with the Owl Bar's famous green-chile cheeseburgers.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Our Birthday Boy

Happy birthday to my Hotdog Brother,
William Henry Thompson IV!

Here are just a few images of our little guy, the one who will forever carry the same name as his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather.

Liam is a man of many disguises. Chicks dig him.

He is a keen observer of nature and the world at large.

And he's really good at making people laugh.

See also, the loving tribute on Julie's blog.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Hazy Harrier Haiku


Dusk hugs the Bosque
slow glide white rump blurry click
I know who you are

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Lucky Bird Photos

photo by Ernie Hoffert.

I am a novice when it comes to bird photography. I keep telling myself that one of these days I'm really going to bear down and LEARN how to use my fancy digital camera. Of course that will mean finding the uninterrupted time to read through the manual and the books I've bought--books specifically written for digital photography mouth-breathers like me.

After 20 years of choosing images for Bird Watcher's Digest I know what a good photograph is in terms of focus, exposure, composition, and content. But knowing what a good photo IS and TAKING a good photo are two completely different things.

With the digital revolution in cameras, computers, software, and the associated technologies, anyone with a couple of thousand extra dollars can buy the high-end consumer (often called "pro-sumer"--a blend of the words consumer and professional) cameras and lenses needed to take superior photographs. Some of my professional bird photography contacts are really bummed that it is now so easy to take "publishable" bird images. The technology that goes in to our modern cameras makes them so much easier to use, you can practically point and shoot and get doggone good photos. Auto focus, image stabilization, all kinds of pre-fab settings for certain situations, the ability to see the image you just took on the camera's small color monitor...it's the golden age of nature photography!

Back in ye olde days of yore a person wanting to become a gifted nature photographer had to spend years honing the craft. Cameras shot film. Settings were manual. Just seeing what your images looked like often took weeks while you waited for the processing house to develop your film into prints or slides.

My kids cannot understand this. They grew up in the era of "Let me see what that picture looks like!" Whoops! Aunt Fleda's eyes are closed and Papaw's fly is open. Let's see if we can reverse those two problems and take another shot!
How the world has changed.

Taking good bird photos is not hard. Taking GREAT bird photos is still pretty hard. It still requires lots of skill, a depth of knowledge about your gear, and being in the exact right place at the right time. I have little skill, shallow knowledge of my camera and lenses, and very little time afield, typically.

But every so often I get lucky.

So I am starting a new irregularly appearing feature here on BOTB, called Lucky Bird Photos. Now with my being a editur you might think I'd give this feature a name that did not make it sound like the birds were the lucky ones. But no, I did not even think of that. These will all be bird photos that I got because of pure luck. No skill, no years of experience, no personal sacrifice or physical trauma. Just luck.

Here's installment number 1. A winter willet I photographed last January on the edge of Titusville, Florida. It was coming in for a landing and I just pointed and shot. No planning. No creeping up stealthily. No aiming. No futzing with the dials and knobs. Click! Nice! Lucky!

Winter -plumages willet showing its best field marks.

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Giant Things That Dance!

Dirty dancing giant things! What next?

Way back on September 1, Zick and I were doing a book reading and signing at the new Books-A-Million in Triadelphia, West Virginia (a town that is soon to be renamed Cabela's, West Virginia for the giant outfitter store that has consumed that corner of The Mountain State).

As we drove up to the bookstore, which was celebrating its grand opening, we saw one of those giant dancing air sock things, powered by an air blower. This one looked like the result of a giant banana having mated successfully with a foot-long hot dog. Its movements were fluid--mesmerizing even.

Throughout the afternoon, as I watched it, it became clear that the giant dancing hotdoganana was putting the heavy moves on a nearby lamppost. It was like Patrick Swayze and that lamppost-like woman in Dirty Dancing. Except that the bananadog had better hair than the Swayzmeister.

Lots of 70s dance moves are coming back into vogue.

We did not stick around after our reading to see if the lamppost finally gave in to the undeniable charm of Mr. Yellow Wigglesdog. But if I see a bunch of yellow lampposts shimmying and shaking in front of that bookstore next time I'm there, I'll be sure to feature it here at Bill of the Birds.

I'm not sure The Bump is coming back, but you never know.

Awesome robot moves!

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Thinking About Punkins

Click on the link for the soundtrack to this post.
DaddysLilPunkin.mp3


This morning the frost was on the pumpkin, or pun'kin as they say. So I'm thinking about punkins, and these images came to mind, as did this song, written by John Prine, and performed here by The Swinging Orangutangs.

DaddysLilPunkin.mp3

The Swinging Orangutangs in this performance are: Bill Thompson on guitar and vocal, Steve McCarthy on drums, Julie Zickefoose on vocals and pennywhistle, and Marty Margolis on bass.
Enjoy it with your favorite punkin.

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