Skywatch Friday Haiku

Pink curtain of night
blue-black waters lapping, hide
things beautiful, strange

—Speyside, Tobago


Asa Wright: Toast For Breakfast

Relaxed tropical birding from the Asa Wright verandah.

As dawn arrives in the Arima Valley of Trinidad, the birds are the first ones to stir, followed shortly by the bird watchers. In between these stirrings, there is a very important thing—a ritual you might say—that happens in the gardens that separate the rain forest from the buildings at the Asa Wright Nature Centre: the bird feeders are filled.

The well-stocked bird feeders at Asa Wright Nature Centre, as seen from the verandah.

I'd been hearing about the Asa Wright bird feeders for 30 years, at least. Twenty-one years ago, the very first article I worked on as the newly minted assistant editor for Bird Watcher's Digest was an account of birding at Asa Wright and Trinidad by Steve, Dave, and Karl Maslowski. Over the years thousands of bird watchers have made the pilgrimage to Asa, the first nature center dedicated to bird watching and conservation in the American tropics, and still one of the best.

When dawn begins her slow awakening, it is the voices of the forest birds that are your alarm clock at Asa. Each morning during our recent week there it was the bearded bellbird, the great antshrike, or the palm tanagers that awakened me. And then, when you wake up and realize where you are, you begin to move as rapidly as possible to get dressed and down to the main building—the original house that Asa Wright herself lived in—to get to what is probably the world's most famous porch, or as they call it at Asa Wright Nature Centre: the verandah! Yes, they spell veranda with an 'h' on the end, and I've got to tell you, the Asa veranda IS ah-inspiring.
The view, looking down the Arima Valley, from the Asa Wright verandah.

Sitting on the verandah at Asa Wright, you are never at a loss for birds. Bananaquits and palm tanagers are everywhere. The palm tanagers even nest inside the main building, coming and going just inches from the bino-toting bird watchers who have come to experience this bit of the American tropics. Beyond these ubiquitous birds there is a never-ending cavalcade of tanagers, euphonias, honeycreepers, motmots, hummingbirds, and doves flitting to and from the bird feeders. All the while the skies are filled with martins and swallows, vultures and hawks, oropendolas and thrushes, and a constant chorus of songs, calls, and fluttering wings. To sit on the verandah at Asa Wright is the tropical equivalent of sitting in Times Square in New York City for a bit of people watching. Sooner or later, everyone passes by you.

A male bananaquit gets his carbs from bread at the Asa Wright bird feeders.

So what makes these feeders so special? I've visited a number of tropical eco-lodges where nary a bird feeder could be seen. The difference at Asa is that the birds are accustomed to the feeders and they are tuned in to what is being put out daily just for them by the staff at AWNC.

So they must have some secret formula, right? Perfectly devised offerings for tropical bird feeding? Surely that's the secret of Asa's success!

Nope. It's toast, slices of watermelon, papaya, and some nectar in the hummingbird feeders, and that's basically it! I could hardly believe my eyes on my first morning on the world-famous verandah as I watched a staff member carefully placing slices of toast underneath the protective mesh wire that holds the food items in place. She had scarcely stepped a foot away before the bananquits and palm tanagers were on each of the platforms pecking out tiny billfulls of toast.

A preening palm tanager.

Most of the feeder visitors seemed to enjoy the bread, but a few, such as the turquoise-browed motmot, and the crested oropendola, come in just for the fruit. The hummers ( a half-dozen or more species) have eyes and bills only for the nectar in the feeders, though they will occasionally nab a small insect flying over the fast-ripening feeder fruit.
Blue-crowned motmot.

The experience of verandah birding made the folks in our party want to stay put, right there. The birding was that good, and relaxing. But we had trails to walk, birding expeditions to take, and other places, other birds to encounter. If I am lucky enough to return to Asa Wright for another week sometime, I believe I will allot at least 50% of my time there to verandah birding. There's just nothing better than enjoying the birds of the topics from the comfort of a covered porch elevated over the feeders, with a commanding view of the Arima valley.
Bay-headed tanager.

A constantly changing river of birds trickled through the trees surrounding the verandah, including many spectacular tanager species. Regular readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for tanagers, so you won't be surprised to know that my first really good looks ever at the stunning bay-headed tanager made my knees weak.

I'm only sharing a fraction of the images and amazing birds I saw during our verandah sitting at Asa Wright. Our trip was filled with very talented birders, including our hosts Jeff Bouton of Leica Sport Optics and Mark Hedden of Caligo Ventures. Our fellow participants were Pete Dunne (of Cape May Bird Observatory and New Jersey Audubon) and his wife Linda, Kenn and Kim Kaufman (he of field guide fame and she of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory). To this we added the experienced guides from the Asa Wright staff, so you can be sure that very few birds were left unidentified. Leica sponsored the trip, the focus of which was digiscoping using the new Leica spotting scopes, adaptors, and digital cameras. I'll post more soon about the digiscoping. For now, let me just say that the Leica digiscoping rig is amazingly easy to use and the images (motmot, bananaquit, video in this post) will speak for themselves.

A tegu lizard looks for something to eat below the Asa Wright bird feeders.

And just in case you think we were far too bird-centric in our focus, I'll say that we saw at least five different species of large lizard on the Asa grounds, plus a handful of toads and frogs, and numerous colorful butterflies. Sadly (but perhaps fortunately) we did not encounter any of the snake species common to the Asa property.

One final thing to know about the verandah: It's coffes (or tea) in the morning; tea (or coffee) at the 4 p.m. tea time, then rum punch at 6:00 p.m. This is when most of the lively conversation takes place.

To learn more about the amazing history of the Asa Wright Nature Centre, visit the organization's website. To get a multimedia taste of what the feeder action was like on the verandah, check out this one-minute video I shot of bananaqits and a female green honeycreeper enjoying their morning toast for breakfast:

p.s. Sorry for the day-late posting. Re-entry to the real world is a mind-bender/time-eater.

Flying Home from Trini

As you read this I am in the air somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean (or perhaps over the good old USA), flying home from Trinidad and Tobago. It's been a wonderful trip. Many birds, lots of laughs, no major catastrophes, and a decent (but bearable) load of chiggers.

Perhaps the second-most numerous tanager we encountered on this trip was the blue-gray tanager. The palm tanager took the crown as the MOST numerous, by the way. We saw this ubiquitous species every day in good numbers. I caught this blue-gray tanager taking off from a perch in a fruiting tree at the Aripo Agricultural Station. I was digiscoping him and happened to catch his launch into the air. A lucky shot!

Now it's time for my launch into the air. This has been a fabulous trip (and I love to travel) but as always, I'm looking forward to being home once more.

See you soon!

—Bill of the Birds

The Birthday Chimp Self-Actualizes

Julie Zickefoose with a hatchling leatherback turtle

Today, July 24, is Julie Zickefoose's birthday. Last night, in a full-on assault on commemorating her special day, our band of birders went to Matura Beach here in Trinidad, to witness the nesting of the leatherback turtles. Being the Science Chimp that she is, this was a BIG DEAL to Zick.

Here are photos to document her night spent communing with these giants of the sea. We started off with a few hatchlings which the turtle nest monitors let us hold and examine. Then we walked up the beach to watch several adult females dig nests in the sand and lay their eggs. It was a magical experience and a good way to spend a birthday.

Zick got to see the laying female up close. Every so often she would grunt. By 'she,' of course, I mean the adult female leatherback turtle.

While the female turtles lay their eggs, they go into a kind of torpor where almost nothing will disturb them. During these minutes, it's possible to touch the turtles. Once the laying stops, so do the close human/turtle encounters

Special thanks to Jeff Bouton from Leica Sport Optics, for inviting us to visit Asa Wright and Trinidad on this Leica-sponsored trip.

Happy birthday, Jules!

Ooh, I Hear Lapwings in the Rain

Neil Sedaka never sang a song about hearing lapwings in the rain, but he should have. I heard this southern lapwing yesterday afternoon—in the rain—at the TrinCity sewage lagoons, which smelled better than the Waterloo fishing dike we birded this afternoon. I'm sad that we don't have a big, dynamic, and noisy shorebird like the lapwing in North America. The killdeer is noisy, but not as large and in charge as the southern lapwing is.

I'm still in Trinidad, which is on the southwest edge of the Caribbean and on the northeast corner of South America. It is hot and humid and as birdy as anyplace I've ever been. Our group is based out of Asa Wright Nature Centre and we're all pining to spend more time on the centre's veranda, but first we have to visit some of this island's OTHER birdy spots.

Good night from 10ยบ north of the Equator.

A Jacobin in Trinidad

White-necked jacobin, male.

We spent the day birding around the Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad. One of the very first birds seen well by our group during the early morning birding from the famed veranda was this male white-necked jacobin who was guarding the nectar feeders.

I'm using the new digiscoping rig from Leica and I have to say, it's getting some tastyawesome images.

More soon. Right now it's time for eyelid movies in anticipation of tomorrow's pre-dawn departure for the land of the Trinidad piping guan.

Trouble Focusing

Is this what they mean when they say "You're not seeing the daisies for the trees"? And who IS "they" anyway? And why are they questioning my ability to focus? So many questions, so littleHEY LOOK A CHICKEN!

Turtles in the Road

June and July are the busiest months of the year for box turtles. Here in SE Ohio any morning following an evening rain I know I'm going to see at least one box turtle crossing the road as I drive into town to work. If it's possible to stop I do, picking up the turtle gently and transporting it across the road in the direction it was heading.

I always try to determine the sex of the turtle. Males have a concave plastron on the bottom of their shells—for a better fit when they are fertilizing the eggs inside a female. I also check each turtle for signs that they've been hit and hurt by a passing vehicle. If they're hurt, I take them home to Dr. Zick Medicine Woman. She uses her healing powers, her knowledge of animal rehabilitation, and her network of contacts in the world of box turtle lovers. When the turtles are fully recovered, we release them where we found them.

On a recent morning I found a medium-sized female crossing the road in front of Bird Watcher's Digest. Where she was headed or coming from, I'm not sure. There's no sizeable box turtle habitat nearby—only small patches of woods scattered around a small-own neighborhood. I guessed she might have been an escapee from a well-meaning human turtle-napper. People see a turtle crossing the road and they think it's lost, so they take it home to their backyard, or garden, or aquarium tank, and keep it. It's far better to help them cross the road and let them be. I picked up this gal and took her into the office.

She was in fine health, showing some signs that a chipmunk, squirrel, or raccoon had tried to chew their way into her shell. Her left front foot was missing some toes and nails, probably from the same mammal attack.

After a phone consultation with Dr. Zick, we agreed that we'd let her go on our farm where she'd at least have a chance at finding other box turtles. That would be highly unlikely in the yards and streets of the part of Marietta where I'd found her.

It is said that box turtles may roam the same bit of habitat their entire lives. When removed from their home range, they will roam around trying to re-find it. What a sad thing. For this female, found crossing a busy city road, we really had no choice but to relocate her to a safer place. So she came home with me to Indigo Hill—80 acres of prime box turtle habitat: old deciduous woods and no busy roads.

We fed her up on earthworms, blueberries, and banana and released her along the dirt path that skirts our meadow. She immediately walked over and submerged herself in a puddle, taking a long soak. Now she'd know where a source of water was. As we walked back to the house, we talked about what she must be thinking. And we wondered if we'd ever see her again. If we do, we'll know her by her left front foot.

Box turtles face a lot of dangers during their long lives. For every turtle I "save" by helping across the road, I see at least ten that are already smashed. I hope there's never a time when we are forced to talk about box turtles in the past tense. So I keep on helping them whenever I can.

Clawing at the Dirt

This morning I woke up, shook off the night, grabbed my cup of coffee, and went outside to scratch in the dirt. I had an urge to do this, you see.

No I am not an avid gardener, though I do enjoy a ripe, homegrown Sungold tomato as often as I can get them. I had another reason for my strange desire. I wanted to turn dirt into dust.

Let me explain.

Our lawn is so pathetic that it could turn a riding mower down a gravel road—and it often does. We care not about the clover and crabgrass, and wild strawberries, and hawkweed, and dandelions that grow there. Come fall the sparrows will relish the seed heads we let develop on these "weeds." We have an open arms policy, admitting anything that covers the bare soil, but that is not exotic and invasive. We battle creeping Charlie and pampas grass to the death. Our lawn, ratty as it would appear to the folks in the lawnscaping industry, is wonderfully diverse with tiny flowers, insects, grubs, birds, snakes, and other living things.

The soil below the grass is mostly poor: clay and bits of sandstone and shale. This as a result of nearly two centuries of farming and other human activities, plus the effects of weather and summer's baking sun. Poor soil quality means open patches where the grass cannot seem to grow. I've tried seeding these spots with grass seed and a bit of mushroom compost soil, but without fail, they fail.

Which brings me back to my early-morning soil clawing. If you can't lick 'em, join 'em. I spied a brown feather near one of the bare spots a week or so ago, and, realizing what that meant, asked Phoebe to get a garden claw (the short-handled implement used to scratch out weeds). I explained that I wanted her to loosen the dirt in the bare spot. She gave me a strange, puzzled look, then smiled and shook her head. Moments later, thanks to Phoebe's efforts, the bare spot was reduced to a pile of fine, dry dust.

The following afternoon, Phoebe surprised Julie with five separate brown feathers she'd found near the bare spot. They were from one or more brown thrashers that I had suspected were using the spot as a dust bath.

Last night, I noticed that all the dust had been swept out of the bare spot by the dust-bathing birds, so I made a mental note to start my day off this morning with a bit of dirt scratching.

Dust-bathing brown thrasher. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

Summer is the perfect time of year to create (or enhance) a dust bath in your yard. Find a bare spot of earth and scratch/dig/poke/kick it until it's loosened, then grind your shoe onto the dirt clods, reducing them to fine dust. Dust-bathing birds will squat down in the loose soil and shimmy-shake the dust through their feathers. This has the beneficial effect of driving feather mites out into the open where they can be preened away. Many birds dust bathe rather than bathing in water, including wild turkey, quail, some sparrows, thrashers—more than 200 species have been observed using "dirt to get clean."

I've tried to explain to Liam that this will not work for him.

I'm sure our brown thrashers found the refurbished dust bath and used it today—and maybe other songbirds, too. This makes me really happy. I'd wager it makes the thrashers happy, too. The feather mites getting evicted by the dust (and it's been a big year for the feather mites)—they're probably not so happy.

Get Your Duck Stamp On!

The ad above is a public service announcement aimed at encouraging more bird watchers to purchase Federal Duck Stamps. A bunch of conservation-minded bird watchers are behind this campaign and I think it's a great idea.

Duck stamp karma must be floating around the cosmos today.
Just this morning I went to the Whipple Post Office today and picked up two duck stamps. It cost me $30—they are $15 each.

There are three reasons why I buy a duck stamp annually:

1. I want to support the hugely successful land acquisition program that duck stamp sales make possible. Dozens of my favorite, regular birding areas were purchased entirely or in part with money from duck stamp sales. Added bonus: having a current duck stamp gets you in free to federal sites such as National Wildlife Refuges, that charge an entry fee.

2. The stamps look cool on my binoculars and are a conversation starter with my fellow birders ("Hey BT3, what's that on your binocs?"). This gives me a chance to talk about the stamps and habitat acquisition. We bird watchers need to do our part to support conservation, and there's no better way to do that than by purchasing land.
Last year's stamp on my binocs. The new one goes on tonight.

3. I no longer have to take any you-know-what from hunters who say they pay for everything with their hunting licenses, taxes on gear, ammo, etc. One hunting friend of mine was particularly obnoxious about this, claiming that birders get a free ride with hunters and sportsmen/women footing the bill. Now I simply hold up my binocs, point to the duck stamp affixed there, and smile.

Go get your duck stamp today. You can order them online or purchase one at your local U.S. post office. To learn more about the Federal Duck Stamp Program, go here.

Below I've uploaded the other PSAs created by the group of birder/conservationists and designed by Jay Gundel & Associates. Images for these ads were donated by photographer Kim Steininger.

Please feel free to grab these images off my blog and place/publish/post them wherever you think they might do some good.

My thanks to Bill Stewart of the Delmarva Ornithological Society and to Paul Baicich and their team for getting this series of PSAs out there for the rest of us to use to promote duck stamp sales to birders.


Phoebe: My Favorite Bird

This is a tribute to my favorite little bird and the sweetest daughter a Dad could ever have: Phoebe Linnea Thompson. Phoebe turns 13 today—yep, she's a teenager.

But I'm not worried. Phoebe is smart, deep, caring, sweet, really funny, and lovely. And every day she gets more so.

She can be tough as nails, hanging with her homey, Liam.

She's not afraid to take a wild ride.

Or to let us know when we've been out birding for WAY too long.

She's a truly kind big sister to Liam, who adores her. They miss each other when they're apart.

Since she was 18 months old, Phoebe has been traveling with us. She's a really good traveler.

She's a dreamer, like her old man.

She loves a good adventure, like a hike into a canyon to see petroglyphs, as the sun is setting over the Montana mountains.

But she also loves to hike at home on our farm. I love that she's waking up to the amazing things nature has to offer. And she's happy exploring them on her own. She gets that "comfortable in solitude thing" from her mom. And that's a rare gift.

I hope she follows her folks into music, too. She's starting down that path. My secret wish is for Phoebe to front her own rock band called Six Foot Redhead. She's only got about 7 more inches to grow.

A week before her 13th birthday, Phoebe got a new bike. She's scarcely been off it ever since.

I don't know where I'd be without my Phoebe. Sometimes I think my life really started the day she was born.

I love you, Phee!

Recalling the Green-headed Tanager

What a week this has been! Between the deadlines, headlines, equipment malfunctions, wardrobe malfunctions, poisonous snakes, stepped-on rakes, event planning, e-mail spamming, deal making, wind breaking, close calls with spotty fawns, hissing of summer lawns, I am wondering where the past five days went?

That's a question with no answer. Like this one: Where does your lap go when you stand up?
To Lappland? Methinks it is so.

So I find myself taking solace in memories. Like this green-headed tanager from Brazil which I photographed last summer near Ubatuba. He's a handsome devil. And if I close my eyes, I can almost smell the woodsmoke and hear the soft sounds of the bossa nova drifting through the trees.

Bring on the weekend and let it linger long.

Midwest Birding Symposium: Now with 100% More Sibley!

Breaking news from The Midwest Birding Symposium! Field guide author/illustrator David Sibley has been added as a speaker on Friday night, September 18. The MBS is being held September 17 to 20, 2009 in beautiful Lakeside, Ohio.

David Sibley's newest book is The Sibley Guide to Trees, covering more than 600 North American tree species. His MBS presentation will discuss the creation of the new Trees guide and the connections between trees, birds, and bird watchers.

He will be signing copies of his new Trees guide on Friday afternoon and also after his talk on Friday evening.

I know this feels a bit like piling on, adding David Sibley to a line-up of talented speakers that already includes Kenn Kaufman, Scott Weidensaul, Al Batt, Julie Zickefoose, Jim McCormac, Jane Alexander, Jeff Bouton, Alvaro Jaramillo, Lang Elliott, Arthur Morris, Paul Baicich, Wayne Petersen, Diane Porter, Ben Lizdas, Chris Wood, Andy Jones, Jim Berry, Amanda Rodewald, Sharon Stiteler, and Mike Bergin.

But isn't more almost always better?

If you're not already registered for the Midwest Birding Symposium, there's still time to get the Early Bird Discount! (And who doesn't want to save $20?)

I look forward to seeing you there!


Leaving Town for Mr. McCown

The view from the special birding spot.

The second half of my family's recent trip out West was spent in Montana, a lifer state for me. Julie spent a summer in northernmost Montana when she was a teenager, living with her sister Barb and family. The other three of us only knew about Montana what we'd heard from friends and absorbed from books and pop culture. We spent three amazing days canoeing down the Missouri river and camping—and there are sure to be more posts about that in the future. Today's post is about a few hours devoted to our attempt at finding a target species in a very specialized habitat.

Julie and I had been invited by Bob Niebuhr to speak at the Mountain Bluebird Trails 35th anniversary meeting in Great Falls, Montana. For more than three decades this organization has been putting up houses for mountain bluebirds all across Montana, and their success is evident by the widespread presence of this lovely all-blue thrush.

Our first night (Friday) at the MBT event we played music as the opening act to birding funny man Al Batt, the world's tallest Lutheran with a sense of humor. If you've never heard Al Batt speak, you really should. You'll have an excellent chance to hear Al at the Midwest Birding Symposium where he is one of the evening keynote speakers. But back to our story...

The following morning I was slated to co-lead a bird walk along the Missouri River in Great Falls. Though it was only a few hours in duration, the birding at Giant Springs Park was very good, with wonderful looks at cliff swallow, common merganser, black-headed grosbeak, and a nesting pair of Bullock's orioles.

The rest of the morning and early afternoon were filled with a series of talks and presentations, which covered some interesting topics. But there was a problem. We'd met Liz Larcom on the field trip and she mentioned in the course of our conversation, a place about an hour away that was a reliable location for a very special bird—one that would be a lifer for Julie: The McCown's longspur.

In North Dakota each year we try to get our fill of the stunningly beautiful chestnut-collared longspur, which prefers dense grass—especially native prairie. To see the McCown's you have to go farther west, to the more barren and dry grasslands of the western Great Plains. I'd seen this species once, years before, in the Pawnee Grasslands of Colorado, but never since. So I was eager to go and Julie was eager at the chance for a life bird. So we swallowed our sense of guilt at missing some of the day's speakers, and we loaded up the truck and headed north. Liz and another Montana birder came along voluntarily as our guides. Phoebe and Liam came along less willingly, but got more into it as the snow-capped mountains hove into view.

After passing through a small town, we turned off the main road onto a gravel road that pointed us west. The mountains, perhaps 20 or more miles away, seemed close enough to reach in an hour's walk or so, the clear, thin air and sunlight reducing the distance in what was literally a trick of the light. Less than a mile along the road we saw chestnut-collared longspurs doing their song flights above the grass. Vesper sparrows and horned larks eyeballed our vehicle from the barbed wire fence.

Then we was a paler gray bird hovering in the sky, singing. It swooped to the ground and was lost, but not before we knew what it was. We'd found a small set of McCown's longspurs—probably pairs with adjoining territories. So we got out and waited for the song flight to begin again.
Deploying birders seeking longspurs.

Here is what we saw.

Male McCown's on his fave perch.

The male McCown's flew to perch on a fencepost along the road and sang several times. Then he took to the air once more. Of the 200+ images I took of him in flight, only a couple are worth saving and here is perhaps the best of those:
In flight, the McCown's tail shows a black T on white feathers.

Each time he finished his display flights he flew to a different spot in the grass, and then walked to what we imagine was the nest site, near this large rock (below). Once or twice he flew directly to the rock, sang, preened, and then disappeared into the grass.
Dropping in near the nest.

The meadow where he was nesting was loosely covered in dry grass. There we cattle grazing in part of it, near to some ranch buildings. The setting was not remote but it did feel a bit lonely.

We moved farther down the road to be in a better position to take pictures when the longspur returned to his favorite fencepost. He obliged us just twice.
He gave us a striking side view, then turned to show us his chest and his cap.

I wonder if the patterning on the head and breast are disruptive coloration, meant to break up the bird's outline.

This species could, perhaps, have been called blackpoll longspur.

The female McCown's was less striking, but still showed the species' obvious chestnut shoulder patches and obvious white outer tail feathers. If you get a good look at the tail on a flying McCown's longspur, you can see the tail is bisected by a dark line and tipped in black, forming a T.

A female McCown's.

The white face really stands out above the male's black chest.

We spent about 45 minutes with the longspurs, drinking in the sights, listening to their thin, tinkling songs, and marveling at how alive with birdsong this place was so late in the morning. Then we hot-footed it back to Great Falls in time to catch some lunch and to reconnect with the event.

Tomorrow I'll share a video clip of the longspurs.
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