Friday, May 29, 2009

Movin' On Up!


Dear Everybody:

I am once again migrating Bill of the Birds. This time, a new blog design will accompany the move over to Blogspot. Blogspot offers some features and flexibility that are not readily available elsewhere. So, the new URL for Bill of the Birds is: http://billofthebirds.blogspot.com/

I Need Your Vote
But my redesign team (meaning Katherine The Web Witch and me, plus a few sympathetic amigos) has agonized over whether or not to go to the widely accepted "Web 2.0 design" for the site (just short lead-ins and thumbnail photos for each post) or the more traditional (preferred by 'readers') design with today's post in full, and lead-ins of the older posts.

Would you be kind enough to share your preference?
Thank you

And, if you've been reading BOTB via RSS, just visit the new URL and tap the new RSS link in the blue bar across the top.

I want to thank all the readers of this blog over the years. You inspire me to write each day! And I owe you a debt of gratitude.

Bill Thompson, III

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Mystery Vireo: Your Best Guess



At Magee Marsh two weekends ago, in addition to the myriad warblers present, there were several vireo species there, too. I photographed this vireo from the boardwalk assuming it was the warbling vireo that had been singing from the same vicinity.

We'd also seen a Philadelphia vireo or two during the morning.

When I got home and started going through my photos to select any that were 'keepable' and to ditch those that weren't I came across this bird again. I thought to make it a Mystery Bird ID Quiz, and sent the image to two birders whose ID skills I respect. One said Philly, one said warbling. It's a bit tough with the mostly head-on views.

I still feel it's a warbling vireo, but maybe one that recently ate a Philly Cheesesteak at Pat's, thus making its lores dirtier than normal and it's overall look pale and washed out (no doubt from the Cheez Whiz). To me the bill does not look stubby enough for a Philly.

What do YOU say?

Maybe one or more of the bird ID aces that occasionally lurk here at BOTB will be kind enough to chime in. [You know who you are.] If you DO answer, please give your reasons.

Game on!

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Lucky Shot: Chimney Swift

Chimney swift.

These images may not look like much via the Blogger interface, but I'm fairly happy about them. I shot this gliding chimney swift as he swooped past our birding tower on our second Big Day, May 10.

Normally swifts zip past our tower at high speeds and zig-zag off into the blue, leaving me with a dozen images of nothing but sky. If you've ever tried to photograph a chimney swift, you know what I'm talking about.

But this chimney swift and his two traveling companions made to slow circles of our birding tower, probably checking it and our chimney out as possible nest sites. After their first slow circumnavigation, I realized what was going on and grabbed the camera. This was the only shot I got that had a sizable bird in the frame.

Here it is cropped slightly.
For the first time in my bird photo life, I was as swift as a swift.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

This Birding Life Episode 20: iBird

A screen-shot from the iBird app on my iPhone.

Episode 20 of my podcast, This Birding Life, is now available for free downloading at Podcast Central on the Bird Watcher's Digest website and in the Games & Hobbies and Literature categories in the Podcast section of the iTunes store.

This episode is an interview with Mitchell Waite, the creator of several database-driven websites for bird identification, and the new and very popular iPhone application called iBird. Mitch tells about his early career as a writer and publisher of computer books and how this set the stage for merging his fascination with technology and love of birds into several neat product ideas.
Mitchell Waite and two of his iBird app logos.


In our next episode (TBL episode 21), we'll be in The Philippines, talking with a woman who is working to save two critically endangered endemic birds on the island of Cebu.

Thanks for listening to This Birding Life! More than 3,000 TBL episode files are downloaded each month—just from the BWD web servers, not counting those downloaded from iTunes. We're proud to be making interesting "ear candy" for bird watchers! And I welcome your comments, suggestions, and questions about the podcasts.


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Monday, May 25, 2009

Meadows Gone to Hay

Male bobolink.

Lucky for our grassland-nesting birds, it's been a wet spring. So I suspect (or hope) that the meadowlarks and field sparrows, and grasshopper and Henslow's sparrows, and bobolinks have gotten their first broods off successfully.

Hay fields are a unique habitat type. When the hay is cut in early May, the grassland birds have no chance. Many nest are destroyed and some brooding females killed when the fields are cut. But without regular cutting (which probably accomplishes the same thing the grazing bison herds did until they were wiped out about 250 years ago) the fields turn to brush, then woods, over time. So the same grassland-nesting birds that may perish from the cutting also benefit from it.
Raking the hay into rows.

Four days of dry weather in the forecast means it's time to cut hay here in southeastern Ohio. So knee-high lush grass is reduced to cuttings and left over night. The next afternoon, if the air is dry, the hay gets raked into rows. Another day or so and the rows get baled. Around here lots of farmers use the large round bales. Some hay-makers leave the rolls wherever they drop off the baler. Others move the giant round rolls around and into neat straight-line groupings.

Raked hay waiting to be baled.

I love the smell of new-mown hay and I like seeing the bales lying around the cut fields. But I'm always glad when the spring is wet and cold and the hay cutting has to wait until the end of May to give the nesting birds a fair chance.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Dew Haiku


Dawn mist arising
Grass heads sagging heavy dew
Meadowlark sings clear

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Lucky Shot: Black-throated Green


While following colorful, feathered sprites around Magee Marsh last weekend, I managed to score a few lucky shots. This one I especially like. It's a male black-throated green warbler and it looks like he's singing. But if you look closely, you can see he's actually noshing on a small insect.

So there I was, having taking this warbler's picture, and I started thinking about mortality. The thought crossed my mind, as I strolled farther along the Magee boardwalk with insectivorous birds all around me, that if I were to be reincarnated as an insect or caterpillar, I REALLY hope it's not in May on the south shore of Lake Erie. That would be a very short life indeed.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Reality of Warbler Photography

Cameras purchased by bird watchers who want to become bird photographers should come with a warning sticker that says:

Bird photography is not as easy as it looks.
In fact, it's not even close to being easy!

You need to be prepared to be extremely disappointed
in the images you'll be getting despite spending all this money.

Don't say we didn't warn you.
And no, there's nothing wrong with your camera.



That sort of fair warning/truth in advertising would go a long way to helping me feel better about the plethora of warbler images I take that look like this:


Or the ones that look like this:


Or this. Great photo of vegetation, perfectly in focus, hiding a blurry bird.



And then, before you figure things out, the bird bolts. Sweet!

But if the birding gods are smiling, the bird does a 180 and stops to check you out for just five seconds more, and you get this (below), an image which is JUST GOOD ENOUGH to keep you coming back, camera in hand, chasing after colorful fleeting things with wings.


Cropping and tweaking results in an image that is good enough for the old blog, but probably won't pass muster for the cover of National Geographic. Still, what a handsome devil this male magnolia warbler is!

Happy shutter-bugging to every bird watcher who is similarly afflicted.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Warblers Up Close

Bay-breasted warbler, probably an old female, at Magee Marsh.

Having lived in Ohio for most of my birding life as a grown-up (relatively speaking), you'd think that catching the phenomenal warbler and songbird migration at Magee Marsh along Lake Erie's southern shore would be something I'd experienced annually. Most avid bird watchers in Ohio (and in the surrounding states for that matter) get to Magee at some point during the height of spring migration—between mid-April and mid-May.

To a migrant songbird in spring, Magee Marsh is the perfect rest stop before flying over Lake Erie and into Canada. When the wind is blowing from north to south (a headwind for migrants) the birds drop into the trees at Magee to rest, forage, and wait for more favorable traveling weather.

I'd been to the famous Magee boardwalk in spring, but always a bit too early or too late to catch many migrants. And I was there once with a team of birders trying to break Ohio's Big Day record. We timed things perfectly for everywhere in the state, except Magee, which was practically birdless on that May morning. Perfect weather—clear skies and a south to north wind—encourages the northbound birds to keep on moving across Lake Erie. And we chose for our Big Day attempt, a perfect weather day for the birds to keep on flying north. We ended that day deep in the wilds of southern Ohio, with 186 species (well short of the record) and with a bunch of unchecked boxes among the warblers on our checklist.

Last weekend the Ohio Ornithological Society held its annual meeting not too far from Magee Marsh. As a board member of this fine organization, I was required to be at the meeting, with the happy knowledge that it would REQUIRE me to spend two mornings watching birds at one of North America's most famous warbler hotspots.

The first day, Saturday, was overcast but warm at the start. By the time we left Magee around 11:45 AM to head to some other local birding sites, it was getting cooler and starting to rain. Still, we saw 20 warbler species, three vireo species, three thrush species, and so on. It was my best day ever at Magee. My fellow bird watchers chuckled at my enthusiasm.

Then came Sunday. Sunny and cold at daybreak, it did not really warm up until well into the afternoon. Bird watchers along the boardwalk gathered in crowds within the scattered pools of sunlight. If I'd thought Saturday was good, Sunday was amazing. Thousands of newly arrived birds moved through the trees, brush, and undergrowth. Everywhere you looked there was movement and song. People called out warbler names to no one in particular, with a mixture of joy and wonder in their voices. I thought to myself: This must be what heaven is like for birders. Except heaven would have a few more Porto potties and beautiful angels would be plying us all with warm doughnuts and hot coffee. But this was pretty close!
The boardwalk at Magee is crowded with bird watchers from late April through mid-May.

There were more female warblers present on Sunday, and more young, first-spring males, giving us a chance to note the subtle differences in plumage. However the most incredible thing about Sunday's bird action was the behavior of many of the migrants. Whether it was hunger, the cold temperatures, or just the rush of the migratory imperative, many of the warblers were low in the vegetation, foraging and singing actively, seeming to be oblivious to the humans a few feet or even mere inches away! And it's not like we were all being quiet and respectful. Cameras clicked, beeped, whirred, and flashed. Birders shouted to one another and narrated the birds' every moves:

"OH MY! LOOK at this bird! COOL! He just caught a bug! Now he's flitting over here! He's attacking that other bird. Oh, he's gonna poop! WOW! What a great LOOK! I can't BELIEVE THIS!" and so on.

But that was not all.

I heard at least three throaty cries of ecstasy—the kind of sounds that are usually accompanied by bad dialogue, cheesy jazz, and a rating beyond the reach of NC-17.

Like I said, the birding was good.

To illustrate one of my own close encounters of the warbler kind, here is a short video (rated G) that I shot with my point-and-shoot camera.
video

You can hear some birders talking in the background, including Jon Dunn, author of several key field guides, including the National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America. This male black-throated blue warbler was less than two feet from me, on the trunk of the tree, completely unperturbed by all the chattering humans draped in expensive optics.

I already know where I want to be when the birds come back next May.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Yellowlegs ID

Lesser (left) and greater (right) yellowlegs at the Tank Farm along Rt 7 near Newport, Ohio.

During our Washington County, Ohio Big Day, the Whipple Bird Club was fortunate enough to see BOTH species of yellowlegs. Not only that, but as we were discussing the finer points of telling greater yellowlegs from lesser yellowlegs, the birds obliged by standing next to each other in perfect profile for a few moments.

This really gave us a good look at the key field marks: the differences in bill length and size; body size; leg length; and plumage markings on the flanks (of the greater).

It might make birding less challenging, but wouldn't it be great if more birds cooperated like this? I'm talking to YOU sharpies & Coops, scaups, peeps, empids, chickadees, shrikes, ibises (ibi?), and most of the dang sparrows!

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Washington County Big Day 2009

What is that old saying about publicity? I don't care how you talk about me, just talk about me?

Saturday morning, May 9, 2009, came mighty early for those of us who were playing a gig at the Whipple/Wrangler Tavern the night before. But did that stop us from getting up at some ungodly hour to tally birds in the Mostly Annual Washington County, Ohio Big Day? Nope.

When I was a mere boy bird watcher, under the watchful tutelage of Mrs Pat Murphy and my mom Elsa Thompson, it was an annual ritual each May to try to see 100 species within Washington County, Ohio, where we all lived. We called it a Century Day—get it? Century=100 species!

I think I remember maybe one year when we got 100+ species. Nowadays with all our newfangled technology, including the Tubes of the Interwebs and The Google, we can pinpoint the location of happening bird action on a minute-by-minute basis. Our friends can tell us where all the warblers are warblering and where all the tanagers are tanagering.

These days, three full decades removed from Pat Murphy's Century Days, it's The Whipple Bird Club that has taken up the chalice and taken on the challenge of trying to top 100 species in little old Washington County, Ohio. This is an account of how things went on Saturday.

After we finished our gig on Friday night/Saturday morning, we loaded up the vans and cars with gear and everyone hit the road. I stayed behind a moment to collect my thoughts—the only person still extant at The Whipple/Wrangler Tavern. And I was rewarded for my fortitude by the nocturnal flight call of a Swainson's thrush! A mere 20 minutes later, as I traipsed up the walk to the house, I added species #2: An American woodcock which kindly peented its way onto the list.

And then I slept for 2.5 hours.

To start the daylight portion our Big Day, I rolled my tired carcass up the stairs to our birding tower. Day was dawning and the birds were already aloft, calling, or stirring themselves to life. But the clouds in the West indicated a day of unsettled weather. In quick succession I heard or saw a dozen, then two dozen species. By 7:15 am I was up to 45 species. That's when Shila showed up and added her bird-spotting skills to the team effort. The wind picked up and we pulled on additional coats against the wind. At least it was not raining.

The day started off promisingly from the birding tower.

The Whipple Bird Club is four core members: me, Julie Zickefoose, Shila Wilson, and Steve McCarthy. We've got lots of honorary members, but, it's the four core peeps who wave the flag of the good ol' WBC.

Every Big Day has a few birds that are total surprises and a few that completely skunk you. One of our early surprises was a merlin that Shila and I saw skirt the tower not once but twice! I got a bad photo of it flying away, having missed on its chance to nail a tree swallow.

Julie floated up the tower stairs about 8 am, bearing more coffee and some munchies. We were somewhere north of 50 species. Three hours later we were ready to leave Indigo Hill for the rest of the county and we had 70 species.

Pine siskins were still hanging around after last winter's influx.

A gorgeous male rose-breasted grosbeak came close enough for digiscoping.

Our male blue-winged warbler sang from the end of the orchard.

Phoebe and Chet came up to check on us in the tower.

Down the road just a couple of miles, we came across an eastern box turtle. It was a beautiful adult male and we helped him across the road to wherever he was going.

The box turtle we saved.

The Whipple Bird Club flashes its gangland hand signs near the Belpre Bridge (where there were no peregrines).

After poking around the western part of the county in a largely fruitless search for some long-shot species, and waiting to pick up the Royal Meteorologist of the WBC, Steve McCarthy, we headed back toward Marietta, the county seat, for some more familiar birding turf. We got the bobolinks not far from Route 676 where they've nested for a few years. We got American kestrel and killdeer there, too. Then it was off to the Kroger Wetland for some target shorebirds. We got both spotted sandpiper and solitary sandpiper there, plus willow flycatcher and house wren. A bonus yellow-billed cuckoo flew over. We dipped out on phothonotary warbler, however.

It was 5:00 pm and we had 96 species. The county record (unofficial) is 110 set by Steve, Shila, and me in 2007. We ate LEAST wanted to tie that. Preferably we'd beat the living tar out of it.

Spotted sandpiper at the Kroger Wetlands.

Steve scans the Kroger Wetlands while Liam and Phoebe dream.

Then we headed up the Ohio River for some other hopeful hotspots counting every species we got and plotting to add the next bird. We ran into a streak of shorebirds at the tank farm along Ohio 7: greater and lesser yellowlegs, plus an unexpected snowy egret. Then we hit Newell's Run. By this time it was already dinner time and the sun was sinking below the hills. We added a few of the expected warblers along Newell's Run: Louisiana waterthrush, yellow-throated warbler, and
Trying to drum up a few target birds on Newell's Run.

Bored kids will find something to climb.

By 8:30 pm we were deep in the woods of Wayne National Forest, hoping for a cerulean warbler. We got no joy. By 9:10 pm it was actively dark and the kids were weeping from hunger (as were we). A calling whip-poor-will came in as species #108 and we called it a day.


We pulled out ALL the stops in our effort to find more than 100 species.

I stepped outside the house a couple of times before midnight, but the wind was howling and the rain spitting and I knew that no self-respecting owl would be calling in such weather.

108. One shy of tying the record, which still stands.

Of course, the next day dawned clear and sunny and still and I felt like doing it all over again.
But would I?

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Finally, a Decent Bird Photo!


It had to happen sooner or later—the happy convergence of a fabulously lovely bird, the rich light from the sun on a clear morning, and my camera with a working battery and plenty of flash card space.

Thank you, Mr. Bay-breasted Warbler, for stopping by our weeping willow tree on the only sunny morning we've had for two weeks.

I did back-to-back Big Days this past weekend. More on that tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the day after that.

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Friday, May 08, 2009

The Swainson's Warbler Trip!

It's always a bit dodgy when you're asked to lead a birding festival field trip that is dedicated to finding one particular bird species. This is exacerbated by the following additional factors:

1. It's a rare bird, known for skulking in rhododendron thickets.
2. Lots of people sign up (and pay money for the privilege).
3. It's pouring rain.
4. It's the last day of the festival and everyone is COUNTING on seeing this bird.

And so it was last Saturday morning when my friend (and festival founder/raconteur) Geoff Heeter and I loaded 12 or so brave and eager souls onto a Ford Econoline van somewhere near the New River Gorge in West Virginia. This was the Swainson's Warbler Trip and it had but one target bird.

As we drove across WV 19 onto a country road that would take us to a spot that had at times hosted a Swainson's warbler, I was already drafting my apology for the trip participants in case we totally dipped out. The rain pounded on the van roof, pouring down like silver over the windshield, visibility nil.

"Well everyone, we tried our best. Some days you get the bird. Some days the bird gets you. Some days you feel like you've been flipped the bird. Sorry we missed it, but that's a great reason to come back next year!"

or this:

"Those Swainson's warblers are harder to find than a working microphone at a Milli Vanilli concert!"

or this:

"If I had a nickel for every time I've missed this bird, we'd be birding from a stretch limo instead of this rattletrap and eating caviar for lunch instead of flat meat."

Little did I know, I was wasting my time thinking up disappointment-softening excuses.

At our first stop Geoff and I heard two distant Swainson's singing along the creek in separate directions. Neither one was close enough to see or to lure in with a taped call. I decided to walk the group down to a nearby bridge while Geoff and Ned Keller got the vehicles.

From the bridge, one singing male sounded lots closer. Then he moved even closer, but was still out of sight in the thick rhodies, 30 yards upstream. I filled Geoff in about this new development and we motioned to the group to stay put while we carefully moved up the road for a better vantage point. Barely 150 feet farther along, I spotted the bird, teed up and singing against the trunk of a giant hemlock. Within seconds I had him in the spotting scope. Geoff beckoned our group forward and we all took turns drinking in this very rare sight. And the male Swainson's warbler sang and sang and preened and sang....

It felt SO great to show more than a dozen birders this cool and hard-to-find bird. It felt even better to locate a bird that was relaxed and singing from a favorite perch on its territory. No audio luring necessary! No trying to get bird watchers onto a het-up, moving bird. Just us, this beautiful male Swainson's warbler, some nice optics, and the rain, still falling down, but completely unnoticed.
Doing the Swainson's Warbler Life Bird Wiggle.

After we all got great looks I realized, in one of those I-could-kick-myself moments that I had ABSOLUTELY NO CAMERA WITH ME to take this bird's photo. No digiscoping rig. No 30D with a 300mm lens. Nope that stuff was warm and dry in the van. Hearing my remorseful cries, Geoff handed me his camera phone. I held it up to my Swarovski spotting scope and here's what I got!

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Nest Building & Mohair

Nesting material dispenser filled and ready for action.

One of the many blessings of being the editor of Bird Watcher's Digest is that I sometimes get sent products to try out and provide feedback on to the manufacturer. Many of these products are great ideas that never make it in the marketplace for one reason or another. Others do make it and become part of the vast landscape of bird-watching and nature products.

I do my best to look all of them over and offer my opinion. But I don't always "get" what the products are about, so some of them inevitably get sent back, or donated to bird clubs or school nature groups. And some of them find a spot in our very messy garage.

I have no idea when BWD received the BirdNEST FEEDERS of Loretta's Blue Star. I happened to find the package while working on my tractor a few weeks ago, and saw that this product was a way to offer nesting material to birds. Since spring was about to be sprung, I took the dusty package outside for a better look. Inside was a foot-long piece of tree branch with quarter-inch holes drilled through it; a package of white animal fur, and an eight-inch piece of copper wire with one hooked end. The white fur was all-natural mohair fiber from Angora goats, which the packaging told me lived on the manufacturer's family farm in Bonner's Ferry, Idaho.

The instructions were easy enough: poke some mohair into a hole and pull it through using the copper hook, so it hangs loosely out of both sides of the log. Place dowels in some of the adjacent holes for birds to use as perches, slip the chain through the screw-eye and hang it near your bird feeders. In three minutes I had all of these things done and decided to hang the new attractant on the deck, near the suet-dough feeding station used by titmice, chickadees, and nuthatches.
Tufted titmouse gathering mohair from the dispenser.

Just hours later, I had my first customer. A tufted titmouse. Its mate watched excitedly from nearby as the titmouse tugged and pulled a huge bill-full of material out of the hole. I got a few images and tried to get some video—so far no luck due more to my schedule than the birds' interest. When I got back from a week away, most of the mohair was gone.



I like to think that some tufted titmouse eggs are nice and toasty, nestled in mohair inside a tree cavity on our farm. It's been a cold spring and I could use a little mohair myself.

Seeing how effective this homemade product was, I got online and looked for birdNEST FEEDERS of Loretta's Blue Star, Bonner's Ferry, Idaho, to see if the product was still being made. No accurate results were found, unfortunately, and the packaging has no contact information, so I can't point you in the direction of the manufacturer. But I can encourage you to make your own nesting material dispenser. You can re-create this idea, or simply offer a basket or mesh bag of hair clippings for the birds to work into their nest building. A few years ago we put out a small wicker basket of Phoebe's red hair trimmings and watched the front yard chipping sparrows gather it up. That fall we found their nest in the Japanese maple tree, completely lined with red hair.



Just remember that pieces of string or fiber longer than 2 inches are a potential tangling hazard for nestlings, and things like dryer lint and felt retain water rather than shed it. For this reason I think the fine strands of mohair, with their water-shedding and heat insulating properties, might be a good compromise. Our titmice surely seem to love it!

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Zipline Birding in West Virginia

Our group was put through our paces in ground school before we took the first zipline.

What IS a zipline? A zipline, typically, is a set of metal cables stretched between two platforms, one higher, one lower along which a person rolls on pulleys, suspended from a set of safety harnesses. Many bird watchers have encountered ziplines in the tropics, where canopy walkways and towers often have this extra feature for those inclined to thrill seeking.

There's a new zipline near Fayetteville, West Virginia, on property owned by Class VI, a New River rafting and adventure company. A handful of the trip leaders from the New River Birding & Nature Festival were invited to sample the new zipline one afternoon during the festival. Called TreeTops Canopy Tours, the zipline operated by Class VI is an amazing experience. Our primary guide was none other than Tiny Elliott, former rafting guide and regular birding guide for the New River Birding & Nature Festival for many years.

We arrived at the patio of Smokey's on the Gorge, the main restaurant of Class VI, and were geared up in our harnesses by Tiny and Shaun, another TreeTops guide. From there we vanned over to the start of the canopy tour course for ground school. In ground school the guides instructed us in everything we'd need to know and do to have an enjoyable and safe zipline experience. Our harness pulleys were hooked up to the twin zipline cables and we took a short run between two tree stumps, just a few feet off the ground. We learned how to speed up and slow down while moving along the cables. We learned how to stop ourselves. And we learned how to self-rescue in case we got stranded in the middle of a zipline run. Self-rescuing was reasonably easy—you just lean back and pull yourself, hand over hand to the nearest zipline platform. We were required to demonstrate all of these capabilities and skills before we were allowed onto the main part of the course.

Perhaps most importantly, we were instructed how to minimize discomfort in our harnesses, which, when holding up our bodies, put large amounts of pressure in certain unusual places. The guides told everyone—males and females—to try to "keep all of your furniture in the same room" for reasons of comfort and health. Believe me, if some of your furniture sneaked into another room before you "zipped" you knew it and wanted to get it moved back right away.

Jim McCormac in safety gear.

The first zip was a short one and not very fast—down the hill into the river valley. When my turn came, I stepped onto the stump next to the lines to be hooked up. My heart was pounding and I admit to having some butterflies. After the initial moment of adrenaline, I was quickly overtaken by the feeling of how incredibly cool it was to be "flying" through the forest. I'd seen three of my large fellow "zippers" go down the line ahead of me, so I knew the lines would not break. Still, it's a bit disconcerting to have nothing below your feet but blurry hemlocks and oaks.

That's me, Bill of the Birds, in my Devo-approved safety helmet.

Tiny Elliott, our lead guide, was our ground school drillmaster. Hey Tiny: "Ta-Daaa!"

Geoff Heeter, not Bob the Builder. Leather gloves are needed for speed management while zipping. And for coolness.

After the second and third zips, we all got much more comfortable and started video-taping the runs of others from the platforms. We also noticed that we were high in the hemlocks, getting a true bird's-eye view of the landscape. I was amazed at the diversity of plantlife living on the top sides of the hemlock branches. No wonder these woods were so full of birds! This was not something I had ever noticed from the ground, looking up at warblers in these mountain forests.

Trusting my safety gear, high above the forest floor.

The course had been designed very sensitively to minimize impact on the forest, especially the native eastern hemlocks, which are being decimated by a non-native pest, the hemlock woolly adelgid. One of the goals of the owners and designers of this canopy tour zipline course is to keep the surrounding forest healthy. Thus, ziplines were plotted so as to minimize the removal of trees and branches. Platforms are built with minimum bolts or screws drilled into trees. Cables around trees are supported by block-stabilizers to protect the bark and trunk. An arborist will make regular inspections of the entire course to monitor the health of the trees being used. I was impressed at how much of the forest seemed untouched considering that the course was only just nearing completion.
The foliage was still thin enough on the trees that we could see several platforms on the course at once.

People on the ziplines are encouraged to have fun but discouraged from making lots of noise. Nothing will clear out the forest creatures faster, or diminish the natural beauty faster than a bunch of screaming thrill-seekers. Time will tell if this course will settle in as a feature of the landscape, or will become more like a ski-lift, with an alley of nature-free clearance for its riders.
Bird's-eye view of Mill Creek far below us. A Swainson's warbler was singing as I took this photo.

I felt a few screams of joy well up in my chest as I rode the zips. And on the platforms we encountered close-up songbirds, poking their ways through the tree tops. A female Blackburnian warbler passed within eight feet of us at one point, gathering nesting material. I was sorry that I was not allowed to bring binoculars along on this initial run. I missed easy looks at Swainson's warbler and northern parula from two different platforms. Tiny thinks compact binocs may be OK if they can be secured by a harness strap. Before we started this adventure we were encouraged to leave ALL valuables behind. Finding anything that fell off the zipline would be impossible.


Sky bridge across Mill Creek.

In the middle of the zipline course there are several rope and board bridges that we walked across to get to the next zip. They were surprisingly stable and gave us a chance to soak in the beauty of the forest and the plants and birds around us. We smelled the sweet flowers of a Fraser magnolia and heard the flat chip notes of a Swainson's warbler. It was a literal and spiritual high to be moving, as we were, through the top of the forest, looking down instead of up.

Prepping for the next-to-last zip.

Standing on the tree platform frame with Mill Creek 85 feet below.

As we neared the end of the tour, several of us got more daring, letting our harnesses and safety lines do their work as we leaned out over the edge of the wall-less tree platforms. I should stress again, that at no point during the tour were we not hooked by our safety lines to a secure anchor. It's nearly physically impossible to fall and our guides were particularly focused on keeping our group both safe and relaxed.
At each platform the guides kept us hooked up to the safety lines while we waited our turn to zip.

I could write about this zipline adventure for hours more, but think I'll share a couple of videos instead. These are two of my fellow "zippers", Geoff Heeter (one of the New River Birding & Nature Festival founders and owner of Opossum Creek Retreat where many of the festival events are held) and Jim McCormac of the Ohio Ornithological Society, whom some of you may know as the good-natured target of many of my online and offline jokes.

video

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I understand there are plans to try to incorporate a TreeTops Canopy Birding Tour into next year's New River Birding & Nature Festival. If that happens, I'll be the first in line to gear up and zip it!

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Wet Birds & Birders

A (wet) male black-throated blue warbler on Sugar Creek Mountain.

The rain came down on a regular basis from Tuesday evening through Sunday morning at the New River Birding Festival near Fayetteville, West Virginia. Wet weather is typical of the Appalachian Mountains in spring—it's one of the reasons the area is so lush and green.

While the bird watchers were undaunted by the precipitation, it was horrible for bird photography. I didn't even bother carrying my camera outside the van on most of the trips I lead. There was no light and nice cameras and wet, humid weather are unhappy bedfellows.

I did manage to get a few non-keeper shots of my favorite warbler: a male black-throated blue warbler which we found on the Sugar Creek mountain trip. There's something about this bird's color scheme that I find incredibly appealing. You can see how wet it was—there are water droplets on every branch in the photo!

More from the New River Birding & Nature Festival tomorrow when I will take you on a tree-top adventure.

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Monday, May 04, 2009

Rainy Days of Birding

A weather front followed me on my latest birding adventure.

From Tuesday night through Sunday morning last week I was in West Virginia at The New River Birding and Nature Festival. As I left for the festival, crossing the Ohio, West Virginia border, a large weather front appeared in the West, darkening the previously blue, sunshine-drenched sky. Apparently this weather front was also attending the New River Birding and Nature Festival because we both arrived at the same time and stayed for the rest of the week.

But what's a little weather among avid bird watchers? We laugh in the face of a driving rainstorm, as long as we can get somewhere sheltered to dry off our lenses, preferably somewhere with hot chocolate.

Intrepid birders at the bobolink field.

The birds were showing well despite the weather—the only miss being the golden-winged warbler, which we figured must have not yet returned from the tropics. The bobolinks at the bobolink field were already in, but the males were flying around in bachelor groups singing and perching in trees. Two days later they had staked out territories and were at war with each other. What a difference between their migratory behavior and their on-territory/breeding season behavior!

Every trip I lead for this year's NRBNF netted some lifers for one or more of my group. On some trips we had new birders along, or bird watchers from the West (for whom many eastern birds were new), and we cleaned up on life birds! One festival attendee netted 70 life birds! That's nothing to sneeze at!
Cloudy skies did not diminish the nice views. At least when the fog blew away.

There are at least 50 reasons why you should go to the New River Birding & Nature Festival. Twenty-five to 30 of those reasons could be warblers, because that's how many North American warbler species are seen annually at this event.
A singing male Kentucky warbler photographed on another, sunnier day of birding.

More on my New River adventures tomorrow. If you are starved to read more about this wonderful event right this very minute, check out some of the posts from the Flock of Bloggers that attended this year's festival, which included:

Mary from Mary’s View
Nina from Nature Remains
Kathie from Sycamore Canyon
Kathleen from A Glorious Life
Barb from My Bird Tales
Lynne from Hasty Brook

I met most of these fine folks during my six days in Fayetteville, WV. Also posting mightily about the event are Jeff Gordon (from whom I copped the list above), Jim McCormac, and Julie Zickefoose.

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