Monday, December 8, 2014

Rare Birds: The Movie

Since beginning to watch birds a little more seriously, I've become aware of a sub-genre of movies: birding films. Rare Birds had been in my Netflix's queue for awhile, probably suggested because I had borrowed The Big Year. It arrived a few days ago and I watched it last night.

I'd never heard of the movie despite its starring one of my favorite actors, William Hurt. Hurt plays Dave Purcell, a depressed and somewhat reclusive restaurant owner in Newfoundland (great scenery). He serves first class meals at The Auk, but does nothing to drum up business, spending his days sampling his great wine cellar. In fact, many of the locals think the restaurant has closed.

A friend, Phonce, devises a plan to drum up business by reporting sightings of a rare bird in the area. This attracts hordes of bird-crazed people with binoculars. Phonce is a conspiracy nut, paranoid that Winnebago is trying to steal his plans for a personal submarine but he always has a plan and he plans to keep The Auk open and his friend in the area. Of course two years earlier Phonce found several kilos of cocaine off-shore and narcs may be in the area trying to catch him selling the dope. It's unclear whether Phonce is partaking of his "treasure" but William Hurt certainly snorts a few lines in several scenes.

Along the way Dave jettisons his estranged wife who is living in Washington DC, gets help running the restaurant from locals who make supply runs, wait tables, and help with the food preparation, and falls in love. The only "action scene" is one where Phonce and Dave are testing the submarine and it is unclear whether they will survive. The first two-thirds of the movie are quirky with a whimsical touch of rom-com. Unfortunately by the
end it is a little over the top and falls apart. Even worse, there are few birds. I counted only three mentioned: The Auk, for which Dave's restaurant is named; the rose-crested grebe; and the Tasseter's Sulfurious Duck. The duck is the supposed rare bird everyone is searching for. In fact it is a fictional species.  I don't find any information about a rose-crested grebe so it is either made up or a very uncommon name for another grebe (possibly the red-necked grebe?). The movie doesn't even talk about auks. Auks can hardly walk and have very small wings which they use to "fly" underwater. They are related to puffins and black guillemots.

Bottom line: An enjoyable, if not distinguished, independent film that really has nothing to do with birds or birding.

Interesting things:

The movie was shot in 30 days except for the last scene. Unexpected early snow delayed filming for seven months until the snow melted!

The crew who had been shooting The Shipping News contributed equipment and their services to complete the movie.

The movie's premiere was scheduled for September 11, 2001. Of course that never happened, and the film was pretty much sent to rental.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Bird Brainz: Birds, Birding, and Books: H is for Hawk

Bird Brainz: Birds, Birding, and Books: H is for Hawk: I don't generally read memoirs but sometimes it is good to get out of your comfort zone and read something different. For several months...

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

H is for Hawk

I don't generally read memoirs but sometimes it is good to get out of your comfort zone and read something different. For several months I kept seeing notices about H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. It had a lot of characteristics that don't make it "my kind of reading." I'm not a big reader of "literary" books--too many books, too little time. It's described as a "misery memoir" and I don't need to read about other people's miserable lives. It's won a lot of awards and that usually means it's a "literary" book (see previous comment). It's British and they have a funny way of spelling words. Also every time I looked at the jacket, I was sure this was a book for kids and was disappointed when I realized (once again) it was not. I know. I'm shallow but there are only so many hours in the day and I spend as many of them birding as I do reading.

On the other hand, the book is about hawks and other birds. So I jumped in--and I'm glad I did.

Struggling to deal with her father's sudden death, Helen returns to a passion of her youth--falconry and hawking. Specifically the book explores her work with a goshawk she names Mabel. Goshawks are described as "birdwatcher's dark grail," but also as the ruffians of the bird world. Goshawks are a group of more than two dozen birds of prey although the Norther Goshawk is the only one found in Europe and North America. (View a short clip from the Smithsonian Channel of a goshawk in Korea striking for the kill.) Macdonald's lyrical descriptions of the goshawk brings the bird to life.

In addition to being a memoir of the months following the loss of her father when she trained Mabel as her way of grieving, H is for Hawk is a history of falconry and a nature book. Macdonald mentions early on that as a child she "cleaved to falconry's disconcertingly complex vocabulary." There are so many great words that are high scoring ones for Scrabble! Knowing the correct words was extremely important in the old world of birding (A spy was terrified that he'd be found out because he had trouble remembering the idiosyncratic words, while the terminology also helped maintain falconry as a sport for the upper crust in Europe.) The history of falconry, as told by Macdonald, is fascinating. They were used in the Crusades and were political pawns in wars. Saladin refused to return the "white gyrfalcon owned by King Philip I of Spain" when it got loose during the Siege of Acre. But falconry and hawking goes back even farther to 2,000 BC China and reading H is for Hawk I learned things I never knew I'd like to know.

Falconry is also the story of survival for the goshawk in Britain. Labeled as "vermin" rather than hunting companions, they were persecuted to extinction in England by the late 19th century. Macdonald mentions that she has a photograph of the "stuffed remains of one of the last birds to be shot." By the 1960s and 1970s falconers started to reintroduce the goshawk, importing them from the Continent. Part of the reintroduction included setting one free for every one you used for hunting. These birds survived and found each other so that today there are over 450 pairs in Britain. The birds flown today are identical to those of 5,000 years ago.

Mixed in with the contemporary story is Macdonald's obsession with T.H. White, best known for writing  The Sword in the Stone. Also a falconer, White wrote a memoir about his training, published as The Goshawk (which Macdonald read as a young girl!) and Macdonald frequently contrasts her training of Mabel with White's training of his hawk, Gos. She postulates about White's lonely and brutal childhood and its impact on his training techniques with his hawk. Who knew that the author of the best books on Arthurian legend had such a secret and tragic life! (Side note: Macdonald came to the University of Texas at Austin to research White, as his papers are held at the Harry Ransom Center.)

Goshawk killing a heron (Creative Commons)
And finally there is the specific story of  training Mabel. Following Macdonald through months spent working with Mabel, the reader also learns about many other birds in Britain, the birds the pair see during their walks and flights. While I cringed at descriptions of Mabel's kills, discovering how the hawk hunts and how falconers teach them to hunt and return was amazing. (And frankly, as a vegetarian I had a hard time reading about Macdonald's feeding chicks and other meat to Mabel. Yes, I know animals don't make the choice to change their menus but the descriptions are fairly bloody.)  Macdonald mentions that for her, falconry is"about revelling in the flight of the hawk, never in the death it brought." But like a proud parent at a sporting event, she admits to being pleased when Mabel was successful.

Anyone interesting in raptors will race through this book!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Bird Humor

Birders tend to be either very serious folks or fun-loving silly people. After all, we spend a lot of time chasing after elusive little critters. It helps to have a sense of humor.

Fall migration is underway, and Jim and I took a 2 week vacation to Canada and New England (Talk about needing a sense of humor; I went expecting to see a lot of birds....but that is another post) so I haven't been writing.

Maybe it's me but I've started seeing a lot more bird and birding humor in comic strips. So quick post....thanks to Mutts!

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Hummers Are Here!

Reports are coming in from across Texas as the hummingbird migration begins. One measure of the size of the population is the number of hummers at feeders. I put my feeders out a few weeks ago and have had erratic feeding until this past week. Now there are three or four birds that stop several times a day.

As a reminder, the formula for nectar is 1:4 sugar to water. Only use regular sugar--no organic brown
sugar, raw sugar, or powdered sugar. Some raw and brown sugars have honey or other additives that can be harmful to the birds. Do NOT add coloring or buy the premixed nectar that is red. It is not necessary and may be harmful. Also unless your water is especially hard you don't need to boil the water. Just ensure that the sugar has mixed in well. Be sure the feeders are clean. That black stuff is mold that can cause the nectar to spoil quickly. What feeders you use isn't as important as being able to clean thoroughly (and types of feeders is a subject for another post). Hummers are territorial so if you are attracting more than a couple of birds you need multiple feeders. Just don't fill each feeder all the way as you need to change the nectar every couple of days in the summer heat.

If you aren't getting birds at your feeders, you'll really enjoy watching the hummer cams. A Rockport group, WWN, puts out a camera that streams live. Check it out at

For a real immersion into hummingbirds, plan to attend the 2014 Rockport HummerBird Festival, September 18-21. Hundreds of hummers can be seen at homes that open their gardens to festival-goers. People often comment about the number of hummers that swarm around (I suggested it was like swarming flies one year there were so many circling me.) and how close you get to them. It's free to tour the hummer homes and maps can be picked up at the local Chamber of Commerce office.

Hummer "butt"
While most of the birds in this area are ruby-throated hummingbirds, last year a calliope stopped by for the festivities, attracting quite a crowd at Zachary Taylor Park. One really fun thing is to watch the master bander putting little tiny bracelets on hummers so that they can be tracked. Two years ago I was able to see a sight few see--a hummingbird's bottom! The banders catch the hummers in mesh sacks, weigh them, check for gender, place the band, and then release them. Often one of the watchers is allowed to hold the hummingbird for the few seconds it takes the bird to get itself together to fly off.

Calliope Hummingbird
In addition to seeing the birds, as well as many other birds that are migrating through the coastal bend, the festival offers exceptional classes, programs, and tours. I was able to spot a number of birds on the bus tour to Fennessey Ranch including a green jay! This year I'm planning to take one of the photography classes offered. Check out the schedule for information on the other events and programs, including a lecture by Sharon Stitele, aka Birdchick. ( I just learned she also shares abeekeeping operation with Neil Gaiman. Yes, Neil Gaiman!) Her book, 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know provides practical tips along with humorous information about birding. Other programs focus on making your garden bird friendly, endangered hummingbirds, Texas woodpeckers, and more. While the focus is on hummingbirds, the event is called the HummerBird Festival to include the many other species in the area. I'm planning to hit several of the programs and will write up some of what I learn in a future post.

Oh, but I can't forget...the festival also features a shopping mall with everything birds and birding. I'm planning to find a bird bath! In the meantime, I need to put out fresh nectar. The birds are getting impatient.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

They Grow Up So Quickly

Parents creating nest
Photo by Jeanette Larson
In the past couple of years, I've seen skimmers pretty regularly during out visits to Rockport but this is the first year I've been able to actually watch their full cycle of life. Just before Memorial Day the birds started to gather and make nests on Rockport Beach.

Skimmer egg
Photo by Jeanette Larson
Skimmers are monogamous and the mates each take turns scraping away a place in the dirt and rotating in the sand to create a saucer-shaped depression. They are colonial birds so many nests are close together and they will nest near the gulls that are also preparing for their eggs. It can take up to about a week for the female to lay 3-5 eggs. The eggs can be tough to spot because both parents incubate and they are flush with the ground sitting on the depression. You have to be patient and watch for a chance to see them when whichever bird is sitting moves, turns around, or changes out with the other. The eggs are very vulnerable and gulls will take any opportunity to swoop in and steal an egg to eat.

Skimmer chick (note beak)
Photo by Jeanette Larson
The skimmers are very protective and aggressively mob intruders to keep them away from the nest and to protect the female. I have noticed that if I stay in the car to watch the birds and take photographs they don't seem to mind. But if I get out of the car they will swoop down as if planning to attack. Human disturbance is detrimental to the eggs and the newborn chicks so I stay in the car. Rockport Beach actually closes access to the nesting area around July 1 to deter people from getting too close.

Growing up
Photo by Jeanette Larson
Like clockwork, after about 21 days the babies hatch. Although I can't be positive, it looks like most nests end up with two chicks hatching. They continue to be cared for by both parents for another 3 to 4 weeks. The most distinctive feature on Black Skimmers is their mandible. Orange and black, the lower part of the bill is longer than the upper, allowing the bird to skim the water for food. Babies are born with beaks of equal length. Within a few weeks you can see the lower mandible start to lengthen and change colors.

Photo by Cheryl Vance-Kiser
Used with Permission
As the chicks fledge, the colony moves closer to the water. By the end of July, the chicks are almost full grown, their colors are changing and they are testing their wings. The chicks are also learning to fish for themselves. Parents will still feed them if needed and sometimes the chicks literally fall flat on their faces after the strenuous experience.

Winging it
Photo by Jeanette Larson
The experts say this was a pretty good year for skimmers with many chicks hatching. Black skimmers were once hunted nearly to extinction but are now categorized as "least concern" on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species but some years are better than others for the colonies. Once a colony is established the skimmers return year after year. While they breed in many areas along the Atlantic coast, they are on the Texas coast year-round. So I'm looking forward to watching the cycle again next year.

Other interesting things about the black skimmer: their legs are short with webbed feet. While they will wade into the water they don't swim or dive. They skim along the surface with the upper mandible held above the water. Their eyes, which in adults disappear into the black coloring, constrict to a narrow vertical slit. They are they only birds with this trait, which may be an adaptation against the bright glare of water and sand.

Literary tie-ins: In Minn of the Mississippi by Holling C. Holling, Minn, a turtle observes skimmers along with many other birds on a trip down the Mississippi. This classic by the author/illustrator of Paddle to the Sea and Seabird received a Newbery Honor award in 1952 and is a wonderful introduction to the ecology of the Mississippi for readers of any age.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A New Nest

I haven't blogged in almost two months but I think I had a good reason. Jim and I decided to move permanently to the house in Rockport so I've been cleaning the "nest" in Pflugerville, packing up stuff, and getting the house sold. I hadn't really thought of our life changes in bird terms until my dear friend Michael J. Rosen, author of The Cuckoo's Haiku: and Other Birding Poems, sent a haiku and a photograph of a hummingbird's nest to me as a moving gift. So yes, I guess we were abandoning our old nest and "building" a new one.

Black Skimmer Egg
It's a great time to be moving to Rockport as it is nesting season on the coast and it's fascinating to watch the birds mating, nesting, and raising their young. The gulls and skimmers are nesting on Rockport Beach. The nests are scraped into the dirt and sand in several protected areas. It's quite a challenge to spot the eggs and the parents are very protective. Although I've yet to actually see a chick hatch, I am starting to see them fledge and the chicks are adorable.

Black Skimmer nesting
Skimmer chicks
Black skimmers have distinctive red and black bills that look a bit like candy corn to me (or I guess more accurately what is called autumn mix since those are black, orange, and white). The lower mandible is longer than the upper, allowing the bird to drag its mouth through the water skimming up small fish. There may be as many as four eggs in a clutch. At birth the mandibles are the same length (look closely at the chicks), but start to show differences by four weeks. The parents feed the chicks until they are about four weeks old and can skim their own food. This is the only American skimmer; the other two species are African and Indian. Although the skimmers are migratory they stay in Rockport year-round.

Laughing Gull Chicks
The laughing gulls are very abundant but I never tire of watching them. Rarely do I go out to take photographs without getting a few of the gulls doing silly things. They always look so clean and graceful!

Laughing gull
The laughing gulls nests will often be mixed in areas with or near the skimmers. The gulls are monogamous, often staying together through several breeding seasons. Each clutch may have one to four eggs. Both male and female gulls incubate the eggs for about 30 days.The gull chicks will go through several molts, changing from light brown feathers to the more familiar white head and gray back.

It appears that some of the gulls stand guard around the edges of the
protected nesting area to warn of intruders.  I find this kind of ironic as laughing gulls sometimes sneak up and steal skimmer eggs. We joke that every post has a gull because they do seem to love standing on the signs and posts around the nesting area.

After the egg hatches, gulls clean out their nests to prevent shell pieces from attaching to other eggs, preventing hatching. Seems like we all need to clean house and build a new nest once in awhile!

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
 (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.