Monday, January 12, 2009

My First Bird of 2009

It took some doing, getting a "choice" initial bird of 2009.

First I had to make sure, as I rose out of bed on New Year's Day, that I did not look out the window. That's hard for a bird watcher to do. It goes against our very nature.

Then I had to find my blindfold—a brown handkerchief with birds printed on it, a gift from a friend on a birding trip to Peru. I thought this well-traveled doo-rag might help my Good Bird Karma on the first day of a new year. Blindfold in place, I slowly made my way up the stairs to the kitchen. I shouted for Phoebe to help me make my coffee and to locate my personal bird finder, Julie Zickefoose.

While the coffee brewed I sat down at the kitchen table to wait for my birding year to commence. Phoebe laughed when I told her what was up—she understands the depths of my obsession. Liam thought it was cool and asked us to blindfold him, too. That would have to wait.

Waiting but not in vain. Do I look happy to be blind folded? Photo by Julie Z.

Julie entered the kitchen, got me my coffee, grabbed her binocs and started calling out birds.

The conversation (if you can call it that) went like this:

Julie: "My first bird was a cardinal. I suppose that's too common for you, huh?"
Me: "Yep. Nice but booooring!"
Julie: "Junco?"
Me: "Mmmm. That's OK, but I'd prefer..."
Julie: "Robin!"
Me: "That's a good one!"
Julie: "Let me get it in the scope for...DANG it just flew!"
Me: "Bummer."

This went on. We adjourned to the birding tower, me still blind folded. The hypothesis behind the move was that the height would give us (or at least Julie) better visual command of the farm, thus increasing our chances of finding something I'd accept. The pressure increased.

And the bird sightings continued:
Mourning dove (no), starling (no way!), house sparrow (no #[email protected]&^% way!), Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, downy woodpecker, song sparrow, white-breasted nuthatch... all turned down my Mr. Picky Pants of the Birds.

An hour passed. Julie started mumbling comments under her breath. I was holding out for something special. Like the irregularly appearing sapsucker who'd been at the feeder, or a fly-by pileated, the sharpie we'd been seeing... something slightly more interesting than an everyday feeder bird.

Julie: "White-throated sparrow?"
Me: "YES! That's a good one!"
Julie: "OK it's in the scope. No, wait! OK! No. Ok! Hurry, while it's still there!"

I removed my blindfold but kept my eyes shut until I felt the familiar sensation of rubber eyecup hitting my glasses, pressing them back against my nose. I opened my right eye and there it was, a beautiful taniped-morph white-throated sparrow! Species #1 for 2009.

White-throated sparrow (taniped morph) photo by Drew Weber. Thanks Drew!

Me: "Awesome! Thanks!"
Julie: "Remind me never to do this again, OK"
Me: "And now for my SECOND bird..."

Happy camper: A good first bird of 2009! Photo by Julie Z.

Happy Birdy New Year to everyone!

I think I'll keep a year list this year! But I'm getting rid of the blindfold.

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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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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The First Bird of the Year

American goldfinch at the Indigo Hill feeding station.

Happy New Year, everybody!

My first bird of 2008 was an American goldfinch in winter plumage.

I could have waited around, blind-folded until Julie saw a less common species and led me to it—say a nice eastern bluebird, or a purple finch, or a red-breasted nuthatch—but when I cracked my eyes open for a few minutes at about 8:30 this morning, it was the GOFI that I saw.

This is a game I've played for a couple of decades. Some years I really try to get a "good" bird to start the year off. When I lived in New York City it was almost always a rock pigeon (then rock dove) or a house sparrow. One year I lucked out with a herring gull. In Baltimore, I could sometimes see the neighborhood American kestrel that roosted in the church steeple across the park from my apartment.

I did not see another bird today until about 2:45. I was sleeping to recover from a very late night last night. More on that later...

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