Wednesday, March 04, 2009


Photo of the actual white-winged crossbills by Shila Wilson

My sister, Laura Fulton, is the circulation director at Bird Watcher's Digest. She is many wonderful things (cook, numbers cruncher, mom, Wii player—and not in that order, mind you) but she is also a self-described non-birder. Sad but true, such people DO exist, and a few—a very few—even work at BWD.

So it was with a bit of wonder that I stood in her kitchen a few days ago, looking out the window at 50+ white-winged crossbills!

No lie!

Laura noticed them, realized they were something different, and IDENTIFIED THEM. Then she called me to come see them, figuring I'd be interested. Heck yes I was interested!

The last time I saw a crossbill in Ohio was in 1979, when I was in 11th grade! This was a special occurrence, so I called my local birding pals to come see the crossies.

Now I'm wondering if this will be Laura's spark bird?

It's a great thing when an avid bird watcher finds a rare bird. But it's even better when a non-birder finds one, because that's how new bird watchers are made. Contrary to popular myth, new bird watchers are NOT made by the transfer of a virus via a bite to the neck. That's only true for the Transylvania Bird Club.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Caption Contest #5

Your caption here.

It's the Bill of the Birds Caption Contest #5 and you, mi amigo, could be the LUCKY WINNER! The entrant who writes the winning caption will receive their choice of a year's subscription to Bird Watcher's Digest (a $20 value!) or $25 off an individual registration for the Midwest Birding Symposium (Yes, that's a $25 value for you math majors out there!)

Deadline for entries is midnight Saturday, February 28, 2009. The Caption Contest Awards Selection Executive Sub-committee will deliberate ad nauseum and will announce a winner Sunday morning, March 1, 2009.

Knock yer dang self out, people!

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Starting the Year Off Right

For the past 20 years of my birding life I've tried to start each new year off with a good bird, an exciting field trip, or at least SOME sort of birding activity. This, unfortunately, often comes into conflict with the revelry of New Year's Eve, especially in years when I am playing music for someone's party. Arriving home in the wee hours of New Year's Day, crashing hard, then waking up well after the sun's appearance has usually meant that the new year starts off with a cup of coffee at 11 am, accompanied by a bleary cardinal or two at the feeders.

I always note my first bird of the year. Last year it was an American goldfinch. I'll tell the tale of this year's first bird in a future post.

The subject of today's post is the first stop on the birding trip Julie and I took on New Year's Day with our pal Shila. We called all the members of The Whipple Bird Club to organize an impromptu field trip for January 1. The fact that it was already nearly noon on January 1 was of no concern.

The Whipple Bird Club may be the only bird club in the world with its own gang-style hand sign. From left: Shila, Steve, Bill, Julie.

Shila could make it. Steve could not. Our destination was The Wilds, a recovering strip mine about 40 minutes north of Indigo Hill. The soil there is too poor to support trees, so it remains grassland and thus attracts birds that prefer vast open spaces: northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, short-eared owls, horned larks are just some of the winter species regularly found at The Wilds.

Before we could head north, we had to head south into town to drop of kids at my folks' house and to pick up Shila. En route to Shila's abode my cell phone rang. It was Steve.

"Billy! I've got a bird here that's different. Can you help me ID it?"

Now I know enough about Steve's birding skills to realize that he would not be fooled by a female red-winged blackbird, a leucistic house sparrow, or a winter-plumaged starling.

"I think it's something good."

We high-tailed it to Steve's and this is what we saw at his thistle feeders:

How many bird species are in this photograph (above)? Two? Three?

Is this any more helpful? There's an American goldficnh (upper left), two pine siskins on the upper and lower right. And...

An adult female common redpoll!

Steve had found a common redpoll among the 30 or so pine siskins at his feeders. We waited for about 40 minutes before the redpoll showed up and when it did, Steve's the one who spotted it for us. This was a great bird to see so early in a new birding year!

From the reports I've heard this is a big pine siskin year and a big white-winged crossbill year here in Ohio. We've had siskins at the Indigo Hill feeders for a month, but no other special northern finches have visited us (evening grosbeaks, crossbills, redpolls). However Steve's bird gives us all reason to check through the feeder flocks.

I first saw common redpolls at the Thompson family feeders in Marietta, Ohio in the winter of 1978—the very same year we started Bird Watcher's Digest. They came in with some evening grosbeaks and siskins and stayed for more than a month. They all came back the following year, too—both '78 and '79 were fierce winters. Little did I know it would be 14 more years before I'd see redpolls in Ohio again. We've had two visits—both short and more than a decade ago—from common redpolls at Indigo Hill. The last one we saw here was in 1994.

So this lone female common redpoll is a special bird, seen with great birding pals, on the very first day of a new year. Here's hoping 2009 turns out to be a special, memorable birding year for all of us!

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Friday, December 19, 2008

And We Have a Winner!

Winning Caption #1: Why should bowlers be the only ones with cool shoes?

Winning Caption #2: This is so Prez Bush can see them coming!

Congratulations to Virginia's own Alan Pulley, keeper of the Birds 'N Such blog, for his TWO winning entries!

Alan will receive a year's subscription to Bird Watcher's Digest as well as everlasting notoriety as the winner of this Bill of the Birds Photo Caption Contest.

A special thank you to all who entered. Choosing one winner was really tough. Also finishing in the top 5 were the following players: MikeMcD, jdr, OpposableChums, jomo, and Dubs. You can find their entries, along with all of the other captions submitted at this link.

Tune in next week for another round of caption-writing zaniness.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Caption Contest

I am inviting all Bill of the Birds readers to write a funny caption for this photograph. I took this image in November on a birding field trip to The King Ranch in southern Texas.

Please submit your entry via the Comments posting option below. I will select a winner on Friday, December 19, 2008. Employees of BWD and members of my immediate family are only eligible if they submit their captions in person, written in Sharpie on the back of a $50 bill.

The winner will get a free one-year subscription to Bird Watcher's Digest (that's a $20 value!) for themselves, or to use as a gift for a fellow birder. Comments by Anonymous will have a hard time collecting the prize.

Good luck!


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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Clean Office

It only happens once a year, but here is photographic evidence of my office @ Bird Watcher's Digest looking clean as a whistle.

I cleaned it (with a backhoe and a pressure washer) for our recent open house celebrating BWD's 30th anniversary. I'd show you a Before photo, but there are some things that are simply too disturbing for the Internet.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Foremost Naturalist

Roger Tory Peterson was an avid photographer for his entire life.

Roger Tory Peterson’s life was never the same again after the publication of his Field Guide to Eastern Birds in 1934. He might have known this when the first printing of the guide sold out in less than a month.

Soon after the publication of the guide, Peterson was hired by The Audubon Society to assist with publications and outreach. His bird watching pamphlets for the Junior Audubon Club were instrumental in increasing membership from 100,000 to 400,000.

Nearly every project Peterson became involved in seemed to benefit from his Midas touch. His columns in Bird Lore magazine (predecessor to Audubon) and illustrated articles in Life Magazine helped establish a national audience of bird watchers.

During his service in World War II he put his field guide talents to use creating plane-spotting manuals. He also worked with Rachel Carson (eventual author of Silent Spring) during the war, studying the effects of DDT on birds and animals.

Peterson's nature films were among the most popular in the traveling Audubon Film Series.

This was a Renaissance man. Roger Peterson made nature films. He helped to form conservation organizations and supported conservation causes large and small. He mentored young naturalists and artists. And he traveled the world looking at birds and nature with fellow bird watchers and naturalists.

Along the way he received every major natural history award, dozens of honorary degrees, and The Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he received in 1980, from President Jimmy Carter.

Some of the titles in the Peterson Field Guide series.

Over the decades, the Peterson field guide series was expanded to include other subjects, eventually comprising more than 45 titles.

With his own painting of a pair of peregrine falcons.

He also wrote and edited numerous other bird and nature books. One of them was the first bird book I ever owned, The Time-Life book Birds. Man I loved that book! I pored over the illustrations (done by RTP and other famous illustrators) and nearly memorized the text.

My first Peterson book.

Inside the front cover of the book is written, in my mom's handwriting: "For Billy Thompson, Christmas 1969."
The inscription inside the book, written by my mom. The book was a gift from my grandmother Margaret Thompson.

Just 16 years after receiving that book for Christmas, I would meet Roger Peterson in person at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania. And a few years later, in 1988, I would work directly with him as he wrote a regular column for a relatively new magazine called Bird Watcher's Digest.

His lifetime of teaching people, directly and indirectly, about birds and nature, and his continuous desire for more knowledge earned Roger Tory Peterson the unofficial title of "the foremost naturalist in the world.

For a video overview of the life of Roger Tory Peterson, please follow this link to the Peterson Field Guides site. Click on "Biography."

Hard at work in his Old Lyme, Connecticut studio. RTP worked until the day he died in 1996.

You may also be interested in reading the two recent biographies of Roger Tory Peterson:

Roger Tory Peterson: A Biography by Douglas Carlson
Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson by Elizabeth Rosenthal

The new episode of my podcast This Birding Life features a reading of Dr. Peterson's essay "Capsized by a Rogue Wave" from "All Things Reconsidered" the book of RTP's columns from Bird Watcher's Digest.

Tomorrow: Happy Birthday and the New Guide.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Upcoming Event: The Big Sit!

Q:What's better than watching birds all day?

A: Well, I would say sitting on your "behindal region" and watching birds all day might be the answer.

And that, mi amigo, is where The Big Sit! comes into your life. The Big Sit is birding's most sedentary event.

But why do we need another birding event? I hear you say...

The Big Sit has many advantages of other birding events. Here are just a few:

1. Unlike most birding competitions, The Big Sit is non-competitive. Most Big Sit circles compete with themselves to beat last year's total or the circle's best-ever total of species.

2. You can do The Big Sit wherever you want to do it, as long as you stay inside of a single 17-foot diameter circle during the 24 hours of the second Sunday in October.

3. This is a worldwide event. Big Sits have been held in more than 20 countries.

4. You might be surprised how many people and how much gear and food you can fit inside a 17-foot diameter circle.

5. Oh yeah. The Big Sit is a FREE event.

Big Sitters in the Indigo Hill birding tower in 2006.

Just past the stroke of midnight on Sunday, October 12, 2008, The Big Sit will begin and during that day, more than 1,000 bird watchers will participate. Some circles will be run for all of the 24 hours—some for just a few. Birds will be tallied from Big Sit circles in backyards, in birding hotspots and even in some National Wildlife Refuges. Friends and birding colleagues will converge for the birds, the conversation, and the simple joys of being outside on a beautiful (we all hope) autumn day (in the northern hemisphere).

I'll be doing the Big Sit in the birding tower at my farm in southeastern Ohio. During the day we'll have a couple of dozen friends show up. The kitchen table will groan under the weight of the potluck food. Snacks ending in "os" (Doritos, Cheetos, Fritos) will be consumed by the pound. All manner of beverages will be consumed and the ensuing bathroom breaks will be carefully choreographed so as to maintain constant coverage in the Big Sit circle.
Scanning the afternoon skies for just one more species.

I've done Big-Sit-type birding in other places—as part of The Great Texas Birding Classic (which features a Big Sit category) and as part of The World Series of Birding (which uses The Big Sit rules and format but changed the name, for some reason, to The Big Stay). Those other events are very enjoyable, but nothing compares to the actual, real McCoy Big Sit which is held each October.

It's my favorite birding event of the year. And if we don't beat our all-time high score of 65 species this year, I'm going to try some performance-enhancing drugs in 2009.

YOU should do a Big Sit! It's easy. Just pick a birdy spot, gather some friends, register your circle on the official Big Sit website, and get ready for a great day of bird watching on October 12.

The official Big Sit website has past results, answers to frequently asked questions, places to upload your results (and photos), and lots of other info. The Big Sit! is a registered trademark of The New Haven (CT) Bird Club, the organization that formalized the Big Sit into an annual event.

The 2008 Big Sit is made possible with major technical assistance from its host, Bird Watcher's Digest, and through the generosity of The Big Sit's sponsors: Swarovski Optik NA, Wild Bird Centers of America, and Alpen Optics.

Happy Sitting!

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Twenty Years!

As she handed me my check stub on May 2, 2008, Ann Kerenyi, BWD's comptroller offered me her congratulations.

"For what?" I asked.

"Yesterday was your 20-year anniversary of working for Bird Watcher's Digest!"

Dang. That's right.

It was back in May 1988 that I left a stressful but increasingly lucrative job in the advertising/PR biz in New York City to join the family business (BWD) in a newly opened Baltimore office. BWD's editor at the time, Mary Beacom Bowers, had moved to Baltimore, Maryland a few years prior and I joined her as an associate editor. We worked out of a single room in her apartment building. It was a new career direction for me and I knew nobody in Baltimore except Mary, but I was fulfilling a longtime dream to do something involving birds. And being able to work for my parents (who were in the Marietta, Ohio office) but live in Baltimore seemed like a good compromise.

The first issue in which my name appears in the masthead is the September/October 1988 issue featuring a cover painting of a great horned owl by Roger Tory Peterson. With that issue BWD was celebrating its 1oth anniversary!

BWD's September/October 1988 issue.

Looking at the other names on the masthead, I am shocked to see how many of my colleagues have died and how few remain. My mom, Elsa, now holds the title for longest tenure among all BWD employees—she's been here since Day 1 in 1978. My dad retired from BWD in 1998. Chuck Bernstein, Lola Oberman, and Pete Dunne are still contributing editors to the magazine. Peter Holt is still one of our European editors. Steve and Dave Maslowski are still contributing photographers (their father Karl died a year ago). And Helen Neuberger still works here at the BWD offices, answering the phones as well as bird questions from our subscribers.

The S/O 88 masthead page.

In January 1995, after a few years a managing editor, I became the editor of the magazine. This coming September (2008) we'll kick off our 30th anniversary.

What a long, strange trip it's been!

* # * # * # *

While thinking about my past, I stumbled upon this old photograph of a birding trip I took out West in 1985. I was eight months out of college and freshly convinced that a career as a full-time musician was not going to work out, when a friend's mom offered me some money and a return plane ticket from anywhere to drive her daughter out to Flagstaff, Arizona.

Along the way Erika and I stopped to see one of my college friends in Albuquerque, New Mexico. On a whim we went on a birding road trip down to Bosque del Apache NWR in southern NM. Someone snapped this photo of me standing along a chain-link fence near the refuge. I remember being amazed that there would be an RV park specifically aimed at bird watchers! Remember, these were the days when birding still was mostly considered a social abnormality.
BT3 (BOTB) near Bosque del Apache NWR, January 1985.

Note the field marks of the 1980s bird watcher:

Swift 7x35 binoculars suspended from a narrow, pain-inducing neck strap.
Greek fisherman's hat with Big Hair sticking out in front
Guerilla Birding Team T-shirt from the World Series of Birding (it's a little-known fact that BWD was that event's first corporate team sponsor).
Field guide pouch with National Audubon Society patch and an Peterson Western Guide inside.

Back when there was a lot more "nesting material" on the top of my head.

I dropped Erika off in Flagstaff a few days after the Bosque trip, and hitch-hiked farther west, eventually making it out to L.A. That was a memorable, formative trip and holds some great stories for another day.

Now here we are in 2008.
Birding is not only socially acceptable, it's trendy.
There are thousands of places and events and companies catering to bird watchers.
A new bird field guide comes out every 17 hours.
And I'm lucky enough to [still] be editing a magazine on a subject I'm passionate about.

Twenty years...
Time flies, man—just like a bird.

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