Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Siege of Bitterns

I'm fascinated by collective nouns, especially those that refer to groups of birds and animals. It seems somehow fitting that a gathering of hippopotami is referred to as a bloat and there is a joke going around that a group of baboons is called a congress. While that sounds right (at least from a political perspective) it is not accurate; a bunch of baboons is a troop. Fun collective nouns for birds include a stand of flamingos, an
A Charm of Hummingbirds
(Photo © Jeanette Larson)
ostentation of peacocks, and a charm of hummingbirds. Perhaps because as scavengers they are sometimes associated with death, a flock of crows is referred to as a murder. Actually how that particular collective noun came to be associated with crows is unverified, but the term goes back to the 15th century and it's a great title for a mystery, one of my other passions.

European Nightjar
(Public domain)
Given my two interests I was thrilled to find a new mystery series that is based on birds and has titles based on collective nouns. A convergence that was meant to be! A Siege of Bitterns is the first in a series by life-long birder and nature writer, Steve Burrows. Living in Canada but originally from the UK, Burrows sets the series in Norfolk, the heart of Britain's birding country. In the winter migrants roost in the marshes and  Britain's largest lowland pine forest is home to woodlarks, tree pipits, and nightjars. (Nightjars have an almost supernatural reputation for their ability to fly silently and, according to folktales, they steal milk from goats. I'm thinking they would make a great subjects for a mystery in the series.)

Clearly Burrows knows birds and I learned a bit about bitterns reading the book (even though it irks me that I've never spotted one during my birding time). But, of course, the big question is: how is the book as a mystery? The main character, Detective Chief Inspector Domenic Jejeune is the fair-haired child of the UK Police Service even though,as a Canadian, he is considered an outsider. Following a highly publicized case, Jejeune is reassigned to Saltmarsh, a small town in Norfolk. This should be a big step up the career ladder except for one thing: Jejeune would rather be birdwatching than investigating. And since Saltmarsh is in the midst of some of the best birding territory in Britain it is easy for the detective to stray from his duties. When a well known environmental activist is found dead, a presumed suicide hanging from a tree, the only clue that it could be murder points to a couple of avid birders competing to reach 400 verified species sightings in the local marshes and the possible presence of a vagrant American bittern.

American Bittern
(Creative Commons License)
The book is a pretty quick  read and would be classified as a cozy, taking place in an insular community and featuring very little blood and no graphic violence. Much like birding, the pace is slow with intermittent bursts of activity followed by discussion about whether what you think you saw is what you really saw. And birders often head out in one direction only to end up following a complex path that leads in circles and off the beaten path. As we tag along with Jejeune through the marshes and forests, readers do learn a bit about birds and birding before ultimately spotting the killer. And other than adding a new bird to your life list, what could be better than that? Oh, and was there really an American bittern in Britain? You'll have to read the book to find that out; remember, I've still never seen one.

A Siege of Bitterns will be published April 19, 2014.




 (I received an e-book copy of A Siege of Bitterns from the publisher.)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

I Spy in the Sky

Spring migration has started and I find that on our walks Jim and I spend a lot of time looking up and trying to guess what bird is flying by. Usually we have no idea, the bird flies by too fast to tell, or we are flat out wrong. Feels like a game of I Spy. Look fast, take a guess, check if you are correct.

Edward Gibbs is well known for his I Spy books. These offer a glimpse of a part of something seen through a cut-out in the page. For I Spy in the Sky young readers are asked to figure out what bird they are seeing. Starting with some purple feathers and clues about drinking nectar young readers will delight in figuring out that it is a hummingbird. While many of the birds may be birds kids will know, the condor may not be as familiar and, although peacocks can fly for short distances, they won't be spotted in the sky.

The richly illustrated book is perfect for preschoolers and they learn a little bit about each of the seven birds. The final page is a cut-through to the back cover challenging readers to see what they can spy with their own little eyes. This will be fun bedtime reading or as part of a nature outing and will help kids be more observant and start to figure out how to identify the birds they see around them.





Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Desperate Adventures of Zeno & Alya

Maybe I'm just more attuned to them right now but parrots keep popping up around me. Monk parrots (also called Quaker parrots) are in the trees around Austin and recently the City of McAllen, TX passed an ordinance protecting introduced parrots from being harmed or captured. 


Regardless of why I'm reading more about them, African Grey parrots have certainly been finding their way into children's books this past year. Like Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird,  The Desperate Adventures of Zeno & Alya features one of these highly intelligent, very social, birds. Zeno knows he is a “Booful, briyant bird,” because his late “servant,” Dr. Agard, often told him so. For many years, Dr. Agard lived and worked with Zeno. Zeno understood and could speak more than 127 words. But one morning Dr. Agard doesn't get up and Zeno is left alone. His advanced vocabulary and intelligence didn't do anything to prepare Zeno for a life on his own. Flying around Brooklyn, Zeno lands on Alya's window. Battling leukemia Alya is just as desperate and nervous as Zeno. She feels totally caged in by her illness, unable to do much of anything for herself, and counting the number of times (9,595 at last count) that her mother strokes her head. Zeno is so confused and uncertain about his new-found freedom that he is plucking out his own feathers. (Reading about Zeno's trials and tribulations I kept hearing the Janis Joplin/Kris Kristofferson lyrics from Me and Bobby Mcgee--"Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose." At one point Zeno literally has nothing left to lose as he is a bald parrot.) In a story that is sad, funny, and joyful, Zeno and Alya find each other, lose each other, and finally find each other again. It is a story of friendship and hope, for both species. Oh, and banana muffins play a major role in the story. What could be better?
Monk parrot
(licensed under Creative Commons)

Author Jane Kelley acknowledges Dr. Irene Pepperberg's work with Alex as the inspiration for this story. As with the many of the best stories, there is some basis for it from the real world. There really are a lot of wild parrots in Brooklyn. The most reasonable story for the origin of this wild flock is a crate accidentally opened at JFK Airport resulting in a "great escape." Zeno mentions the Great Escape, having heard about it from Monk parrots he meets on his adventures. 

African Grey parrots have also been re-introduced to the wild by organizations like The World Parrot Trust and people like Jane Goodall. Like Zeno, these birds don't immediately rush to freedom when the cage doors open. About 80% of illegally captured birds die while they are being trafficked and the mortality rate for legally traded birds is 40-50% between capture and export. In the wild Grey parrots may live to be 25, while properly cared for captive birds can live twice as long.

Final thought....oh my gosh. While writing this post I learned about a Parrot Lovers cruise out of Galveston. Wow! Who wants to go with me? 


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Nightingale's Nest

Magical realism is a genre where there are elements of magic in an otherwise "normal" world. I am not generally a reader of magical realism or other types of fantasy fiction but 1) I loved Nikki Loftin's first book, The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy and 2) Nightingale's Nest is loosely about birds. 


Nightingale's Nest combines magic into an more traditional tween problem novel. 12-year-old Little John is helping out with his family's financial crisis by working with his father trimming trees and doing gardening work for the owner of The Emperor's Emporium, a chain of dollar-type stores. His sister died when she fell out of a tree and his mother is totally engulfed by grief, while Little John feels somewhat to blame for encouraging her to follow his lead and jump out of the tree. Family in dire straits, about to be evicted from their home, suffering loss....pretty typical problem novel. 

While working with his dad, Little John hears an enchantingly beautiful voice singing. Here comes the magic...sitting in a tree, Gayle acts and talks as if she were a bird. Is she? It sure seems that way. The two kids quickly become friends and Little John tries to protect Gayle from the horrid foster family where she is living until her parents can find her. Where are her parents? They flew away after telling her that if they were ever separated Gayle should build a nest in the tree near "the Emperor's" property and wait for them to find her. The Emperor hears Gayle's singing and enlists Little John's help in getting her to allow him to record her song by offering him a lot of money. More magic. Her song has healing powers but when she is forced to sing, she loses her voice. So Little John is forced to
Nightingale
 (Photo used under Creative Commons license)
choose between betraying his friend or getting the money to save his family. 



The story is loosely related to Hans Christian Andersen's "The Nightingale" but not enough to really be a modern retelling of that fairy tale. It is its own story, steeped with information about birds. Little John is interested in birds and his bedtime reading is often one of his Audubon books.  Many birds are mentioned, including mockingbirds, finches, crows, and more. While readers won't find a lot of factual information, Loftin's lyrical writing often evokes images of these and other birds singing, tweeting, and flying, providing a sense of the wonder and beauty of our avian friends. And of course, the title bird, the nightingale, is not naturally found in Texas or the US. But heck, this is fiction and that is part of the magic.

For readers ages 8 and up, including adults who enjoy a good story. Readers in the Austin area might also like to attend Nikki's book launch party Saturday, February 22, 2014 at Book People.

(I received an advance reader copy of the book from the author, who is a friend and colleague.)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Festive Occasions

Calliope Hummingbird, Rockport, TX
Festivals are fun and they offer opportunities for birders to add to their life lists with the help of others who know more about birding. The festivals usually include presentations by specialists and amateurs, along with workshops and walks. Often they include exhibits or vendors, allowing us to add to our collection of whatever bird we collect, try out binoculars and scopes, or discover new types of feeders. Some festivals like the HummerBird Celebration in Rockport, which got me started on my birding adventures, include both backyard birding and "in the wild" field trips. Without festivals I would never have known about the Calliope Hummingbird that decided to come to town. Nor would I have been able
Banding a Ruby-throat Hummingbird
to see a bander up close, allowing for this rare shot of a hummingbird hiney.

As I wind down some projects and ease a little more into "retirement," I hope to get to more festivals. To that end, I've started a list of birding festivals in the United States. It's one of the tabs at the top of the blog. I'll be adding to the list as time permits and as I find information, but feel free to share any festivals you know about. Maybe we'll spot some Green Jays or a Burrowing Owl together!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Inside a Bald Eagle's Nest

© 2014 Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. 
Thank goodness the founding fathers went with the beautiful bald eagle as the symbol of our nation rather than the much less photogenic turkey! The bald eagle is truly an awe-inspiring bird but one that many of us never get to see in real life. It is only through hard work by conservationists and citizens who were determined not to allow this majestic bird to go the way of the Dodo that the bald eagle survives to nest in our nation's capital and other areas. By about 1960 eagles were rare and nearly extinct, victims of DDT, habitat changes, and hunting. Indeed I recall as a child wondering if I would ever get to see a bald eagle outside of a zoo. Legislation banned DDT and protected the remaining eagles who, miraculously, are making a huge comeback in many areas of the country, including urban and suburban areas. 


Inside a Bald Eagle's Nest: A Photographic Journey Through the American Bald Eagle Nesting Season by Teena Ruark Gorrow and Craig A. Koppie is a gorgeous coffee table type of book that takes readers on a
© 2014 Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. 
photographic journey through one full nesting season in suburban Washington D.C. The photographs, most taken by Koppie or Gorrow, are often amazing and even startling. As a budding photographer I can only hope that one day I have the opportunity to take a photograph half as good as these. It's hard to pick out a favorite but rarely will you get to see such an up-close shot of eaglets without being ripped to shreds by protective eagle parents! 




© 2014 Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.
While it is tempting to focus entirely on the photography, that would be unfair to the book. The text is filled with interesting facts and  information about the eagles. Beginning with nest preparation, we learn about mating and egg laying and nest building. We also watch as the eggs incubate (the male will sit on the eggs for brief periods of time to give the female a break) and hatch, marveling as the eaglets start to learn about life outside the nest. We also learn about current threats to the eagle. For example, wires from utility lines and towers threaten the birds and wind farms have caused the death of 68 eagles since 2008. But even with these dangers, life goes on. One of the last photographs is of two proud-looking parents surveying the area as their family moves on, hopefully to return the next year for another cycle of nesting.


Last Chance Forever conservationist
with young Bald Eagle
Thanks to conservation efforts it is now possible to see bald eagles in every one of the lower 48 states, as well as Alaska. (When Jim and I visited Alaska many years ago the best place to see the eagles was at the town dump!). Closer to home for us, we've visited the eagles near Burnet and at Lake Buchanan. (Last Chance Forever brought out a young male that is being rehabilitated for release so we were able to get a very close view.)  Maybe next year we'll got to Emory, TX (billed as the Eagle Capital of Texas) for the 19th Annual Eagle Festival. To find eagles near where you live or are visiting, check out the Bald Eagle Viewing Directory

And it if you can't get a personal eagle fix, check out the webcams listed in Inside a Bald Eagle's Nest that offer readers the opportunity to view live and recorded footage from several sites. My favorite is probably the National Geographic camera that features highlights from the birds we met in the book.

Oh, and I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, who hoped I would review it.


Monday, January 13, 2014

What's a Three-Letter Word for Bird Watcher?

Let me start by saying I should have written this article last month....December 2013 was the 100th anniversary of the crossword puzzle. I love doing crossword puzzles. For an indoor activity, nothing gives me more pleasure than being able to complete an entire puzzle without resorting to using the crossword dictionary. (My favorite is the New Comprehensive A-Z Crossword Dictionary but it hasn't been updated in 10 years so when my copy fell apart I bought The Million Word Crossword Dictionary. It's as good but the size of a small house.) 
Young Bald Eagle
Royal Tern

So what does this have to do with birding? As I've become more obsessed with adding birds to my life list, I've started noticing birds in crossword puzzle clues. Some are obvious and almost expected. A "coastal flyer" is almost always either erne or tern. I know what a tern is but don't think I've ever seen an erne. Turns out that another clue provides more information about the erne--it's a (4-letter word for) sea-eagle (or as a 3-letter word, ern). The word is not used very frequently and doesn't show up in The Sibley Guide to Birds (Note: the 2nd edition is coming out in March!), which probably explains why most of us have never heard the word used in real life. ( "Did you notice the magnificent erne in the nest out on the highway past Burnet?") Oh, an interesting bit of trivia...a group of Steller's Sea-Eagles are collectively known as a "constellation." Wait, a minute. Sea-eagles are any of the eight large fish-eating eagles so I have seen the Bald Eagle, meaning I have seen an erne.

Some birds can only be found in the puzzles. Big extinct bird (3 letters) is Moa, a flightless bird from New Zealand. Hunted to extinction by early Polynesian people, the bird was, apparently, very slow to mature. The Dodo, or feathered has-been (4 letters), was not really stupid and was considered so mainly because it was friendly, having no enemies on the island of Mauritius until pigs and dogs were brought there in 1851. 


Other birds to look for in crossword puzzles? These are just a few. Feel free to add more in the comments when you spot them in a puzzle.
  • Wading bird (egret, heron)
  • Bright bird (tanager)
  • Flightless bird (emu, dodo)
  • Game bird (grouse, pheasant, quail)
  • Bird of prey (falcon, kite, vulture)
  • Insect-eating bird (vireo, gnatcatcher)
  • Bird of peace (dove)
  • Aquatic bird (coot, grebe, cormorant)
  • Downy duck (eider)
  • Red breasted thrush (robin)
  • Talking bird (mynah and variants myna and minah; parrot)
  • Nocturnal bird (owl)

So, my question is: Does spotting birds in crossword clues count as birding? Maybe I could do a Big Year in crossword puzzles! How many species might I find? Time to pick up my pencil and go birding. Oh, and what is a three-letter word for bird watcher? Try cat.