A Legend of Birding is Gone

“My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today.” Richard Adams, Watership Down

This picture of all of us posing on a tank in Israel sits in my office. When work gets ridiculous, I like to look at it to be reminded of the good times and the many friends, including BT3 that I have on the road.

This picture of all of us posing on a tank in Israel sits in my office. When work gets ridiculous, I like to look at it to be reminded of the good times and the many friends, including BT3 that I have on the road.

Bill Thompson III aka BT3 was always someone I was happy to see. Years ago before there was any “Birdchick” and I was trying to get published, I sent bird articles to anyone. The ones from his family’s publication Bird Watcher’s Digest were the nicest, “This is a great article, but isn’t right for our publication.” It was handwritten and everything.

I first met Bill in my days of working for a wild bird feeding store, working birding trade shows called Bird Watch America but really got to know him at Tucson ABA Convention. We had a late night and he introduced me to what is my favorite beer to this day: Fat Tire. I have to admit that as nice as he was, I was really hoping to meet Julie Zickefoose and hoped he’d get me an in.

Not long after that I ran into him in the Rio Grande Valley. I was there on my own for the first time and he was leading a field trip. He dashed over to hug me and say hi and then pointed out my very first great kiskadee and informed me that they don’t say, “kisk-a-dee, kisk-a-dee” what they are really saying in their call is “Fuck the world! Fuck the world!”

Fuck the the world indeed. He’s gone too soon.

I have so many special birding moments or stories that I tell friends that he was part of. He may not even be mentioned in those stories, but he was there experiencing them with me. He was always someone you were happy to see when he walked in a room. He was generous with his time, advice and ear. He was always trying to make birding as approachable and fun as possible. The New Birder’s Guide is still one of the best books out there for someone who wants to make the switch from backyard birding to full on birding.

Here are some of my favorite memories of Bill.

Baird's Sparrow.JPG

It was a my first time in North Dakota at the Potholes and Prairie Festival. The weather had been challenging and I’d missed the Baird’s Sparrow and Sprague’s pipit. Kim Risen and BT3 had made plans to go birding the day after the festival and were kind enough to let me join them. The weather was perfect, cool and sunny and very little wind. The light made the prairie glow. We got to the spot and a Baird’s sparrow sang within 10 feet of us. A Sprague’s pipit hovered over us and harmonized with the Baird’s. On top of that we had other prairie birds singing like western meadowlark. We sat in silence for well over an hour. BT3 even napped. It was peaceful and everything I loved about birding: sharing their wonder with good people. My sense memory to that perfect moment comes back every time I see this photo.

BT3 and I shared a skewer of turkey testicles in Israel.

BT3 and I shared a skewer of turkey testicles in Israel.

BT3 and I were part of a fam trip to Israel. We saw so many lifers and that crane migration is something to put on your bucket list. We were also on the trip with Bill Oddie which was a treat for many reasons—one being we are the same height so when all the tall people were zipping up a mountain, I had a fellow shorty to keep me company behind the group. At one point BT3 came over to us and said while laughing, “I’m sorry, but I have to tell you that when I’m around you two, I feel like Gandalf walking through the Shire!”

At the end of our trip BT3, Pete Dunne and I had a long evening before we had to catch our flight. We walked the beach in Tel Aviv to Jaffa and had a beer. When we got back to our hotel, I stood on the balcony and watched the people below. A bunch of young men stripped down to their underwear and began playing volley ball. BT3 caught me using my binoculars to enjoy the show and shouted, “Sharon!!!!”

Jeff Gordon grabs a selfie of all of us eBirding the crap out of Liechtenstein with Clay Taylor, Jessie Barry, Chris Wood, Corey Finger and BT3. (and our guide who I only remember as Leander).

Jeff Gordon grabs a selfie of all of us eBirding the crap out of Liechtenstein with Clay Taylor, Jessie Barry, Chris Wood, Corey Finger and BT3. (and our guide who I only remember as Leander).

So many trips, so many drinks, so many laughs…that time we drunkenly sauntered down the Alps and peed behind a dumpster together. That time we watched a wallcreeper on a castle and then followed Chris Wood’s idea that we go into Liechtenstein so we could be the top eBirders for that principality.

Hundreds of more memories that I just can’t put into words this morning.

He was a great friend on the road and incredibly helpful to my birding career. The birding community is not going to be the same. Oh hell, I suddenly remember he and Julie let Non Birding Bill and I stay at Indigo Hill and we made a video on How To Do A Big Sit.

Tim Appleton, Mark Cocker, Wendy Clark, Bill Thompson.

Tim Appleton, Mark Cocker, Wendy Clark, Bill Thompson.

This was one of the Midwest Birding Symposiums and I got to get to know Wendy Clark. This was a gorgeous night on Lake Erie. The sunset was stunning in its colors but we thought the moment should be captured in black and white.

Bill, Julie and Wendy have been brutally honest about what this pancreatic cancer journey has been like for the family. The comment that broke me was a photo on Facebook of BT3 with Michael O’Brien and Zemaitis. They had run into each other in customs in November while returning from different birding trips. It popped up last week and BT3 wrote, “Turns our that was my last birding trip. So glad we crossed paths!!”

I’m not ready to contemplate what is going to be my last birding trip. Do all the things you want to do. Go on that birding trip. Skip the laundry and go look for warblers this spring. Eat all the carbs. Tell those important to you how important they are.

Thank you, BT3, for being such a great companion on the road. Thank you for all that you did to help me get to where I am today. Thank you for all you did to get people to notice birds. Thank you for sharing your music.

Sax Zim Bog and Digiscoping

Hello! If you are here because of the KARE 11 or MPR segment, welcome! If you’re wondering about what the smart phone photography technique I was talking about, it’s known as digiscoping or phone scoping. It’s a way to use your smartphone with a spotting scope to take pictures and videos of birds and wildlife. You can learn more about the technique and the kit I use here. The case for my phone that I’m writing about is from a company called PhoneSkope.

Here’s a video I took of a northern hawk owl at the bog on Monday. This was taken with my iPhone in a PhoneSkope case and my Swarovski ATX spotting scope:

If you’re curious about “the bog” I referenced, that is Sax Zim Bog—a birding hot spot in Minnesota, especially in winter. You can find tons of great information at the Friends of Sax Zim Bog page. If you’ve never been, it’s best to hire a guide or consider going to the festival. The bog is large and without a strategy you can spend a lot of time driving without seeing any birds and wondering where to pee.

The bog is great birding year round, but there some birds that are easier to see in winter or can only be found there in winter. Target species for birders include (but is certainly not limited to) great gray owl, northern hawk owl, Canada jay, pine grosbeak, evening grosbeak, common redpolls, hoary redpolls, snowy owls, black-billed magpie and boreal chickadee. Several areas host bird feeders, some on private land, some on public. Friends of SZ has a great map pointing out the feeding stations. Some of the birds are after seed and others are after meat and fat in the form of chunks of venison.

Canada Jay perched on meat mountain (a deer torso) at Sax Zim bog. Dozens of black-capped chickadees will also come in for this. Note video below.

Canada Jay perched on meat mountain (a deer torso) at Sax Zim bog. Dozens of black-capped chickadees will also come in for this. Note video below.

Boreal chickadee on a suet feeder filled with deer chunks.

Boreal chickadee on a suet feeder filled with deer chunks.

I told my friends Gayle and Anne who dragged me out of my apartment for this day trip to listen for a “chick-a--shnee” sound instead of a “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” sounds. Among all of the black-capped chickadees in the bog is the browner boreal chickadee. We heard the bird but only caught barely a glimpse. We waited as long as we could but got the point where we needed to take the boardwalk back to the bathrooms. We carefully made our way back, keeping our eyes down to watch for icy patches when we heard a loud “CHICK-A-SHNEE!” There, about three feet from us on a feeder was the boreal chickadee. It was almost as if it was trying to tell us not to miss it.

We got good long looks and I had to back up down the trail so I could get a photo with my scope.

Colorful pine grosbeaks are in big numbers this year and easy to get at the bog.

Colorful pine grosbeaks are in big numbers this year and easy to get at the bog.

I didn’t manage to get a photo on Monday, but here are evening grosbeaks from last year. They kind of look like a goldfinch on steroids.

I didn’t manage to get a photo on Monday, but here are evening grosbeaks from last year. They kind of look like a goldfinch on steroids.

Again not a photo from Monday, it was too dark to get a picture of the great gray we saw. However, I took this picture a year ago in the same spot.

Again not a photo from Monday, it was too dark to get a picture of the great gray we saw. However, I took this picture a year ago in the same spot.

So if you’re looking for a unique way to spend the day, consider visiting Sax Zim Bog. Also, it’s worth it alone to see the face of your coworker when they ask what you did over the weekend and you answer, “I went up to a frozen bog to look for owls. “

Birding Lake Mburo National Park

After we saw the shoebill, I felt a weight come off of me in Uganda. I really, really wanted to see that bird. Of course I wanted to see many things, but that was the number one hope and Bird Uganda Safaris delivered. Even though my first look was at a distance I truly felt that I could really enjoy anything and everything because I saw my most wanted and didn’t have to stress if I would go home without it. It’s weird to pin so much hope on one species.

Leaving Mabamba wetlands we saw several trucks with fish attached to the Grill. Herbert told us that people put it there to keep it cool and fresh on the drive home. We asked if it worked and he said, “When I tried it, all I had was fish covered in insects and I never did it again.”

Leaving Mabamba wetlands we saw several trucks with fish attached to the Grill. Herbert told us that people put it there to keep it cool and fresh on the drive home. We asked if it worked and he said, “When I tried it, all I had was fish covered in insects and I never did it again.”

 After the shoebill swamp we headed to Lake Mburo National Park where would stay at a Mantana Tented Camp. I wasn’t sure what the meant, but it sounded like an adventure. Along the way we would spot many birds and a few mammals. It was overwhelming because early on a bird trip everything is new and most likely a lifer, you’re not sure which species are going to be the common ones you see everywhere and which ones will be harder and that’s your one chance. Our guides Herbert and Davis from Bird Uganda Safaris also had the challenge of keeping us to schedule, but delighting in all of the things we were enjoying. But when we would stop for bathroom breaks we would always get fun birds.

Lesser blue-eared starling coughing up an undigestible seed seen on a bathroom stop.

Lesser blue-eared starling coughing up an undigestible seed seen on a bathroom stop.

Darkness descended as we entered Lake Mburo National Park and though we couldn’t see the landscape well we saw some mammals in our headlights. This park was where we got our first iconic African mammals like cape buffalo and zebras. When we arrived at the lodge, travel weary and hungry they gave us our keys and the rules of the tented camp. The biggest rule was that you were not allowed to leave your tent and walk the grounds without an escort. Not because you might be eaten by leopard, but because cape buffalo wander the grounds and if you surprise them you would be trampled. You can schedule staff to pick you up and there’s even a whistle in your tent in case you need help immediately. You blow on that and staff come running.

My porter carried my 50 pound suitcase on his head and with flashlights in hand we took the gravel trail to my tent. He showed me how to use the shower—I would schedule a time with him to fill the bucket with warm water and I’d have about 5 minutes to get clean. He also offered to spray my room with insecticide while I was at dinner for extra mosquito protection. I arranged for him to pick me up in twenty minutes and began to unpack. I suddenly heard a chirping noise and assumed it was a house gecko. Then I heard some fluttering.

Scarlet-chested sunbird.jpg

To my surprise and delight, I had a lifer scarlet-chested sunbird in my bathroom. I think the bird had been roosting and my activity in the tent woke it up. It soon found a gap and flew out into the night. There were no outlets in my tent, though there were lights. Anything that I needed to charge, I would only be able to charge in the main lodge. At night I would plug in external batteries at the lodge to use the next day. I’d use my laptop to charge my phone. During the day I’d leave my laptop in the main lodge to charge.

The lodge charging station…at a slow time.

The lodge charging station…at a slow time.

 During dinner we could order from the bar and we were served three course meals of soup, a main dish like chicken and rice and a dessert. Bats would zoom in and out of the darkness while we ate and discussed the next day’s itinerary. The hotel manager came by and asked if we would like to arrange a wake up call—if you’re phone was changing, you needed some type of alarm. We also had the option of getting our wake up call with fresh coffee or tea. I arranged for my wake up call with coffee and a fill up of warm water for the shower.

I love an alarm that comes with fresh coffee.

I love an alarm that comes with fresh coffee.

I was so overwhelmed by the beauty and fun of the day that I fell asleep on my very firm mattress as soon as my head hit the pillow while crickets sang around me. At about 4am some snorting outside my tent woke me up. It didn’t sound like angry snorting and I assumed they were some kind of wild boar and fell asleep. Two hours later my wake up call arrived with coffee and biscuits. What a treat! He ten filled my bucket with warm water. I opened the valve to get good and wet before shutting it off, lathered my hair with shampoo and my body with soap. I opened the valve again to rinse and shut it off. I added some conditioner to my hair and opened the valve until the water ran out and I was perfectly rinsed. It was an ideal shower.

Freshly showered and caffeinated I absorbed my view over dawn.

Freshly showered and caffeinated I absorbed my view over dawn.

I finally got a look at the outside of my room as I left for breakfast.

I finally got a look at the outside of my room as I left for breakfast.

 I stood on my deck and watched the sun reveal the majestic landscape around me as I sipped rich coffee. All around me birdcalls filled the air. I love being in a country and listening to people speak in languages I’m not familiar with. I don’t enjoy that so much with birds. I want to know who the all are.

 I got dressed and packed up my daily birding gear and made my way towards the main lodge. When I arrived a green-headed sunbird was fighting its reflection in one of the mirrors and adorable mousebirds were teed up. The expansive lush landscape was filled with new birds. We wanted to eat breakfast but so many birds were popping up and we had to see them all. It’s one of my favorite feelings, surrounded colorful landscapes and birds and being surrounded by fruit and coffee. Herbert kept us on task because we had a boat to catch, he made us finish our breakfasts and load up in the vehicles.

Speckled mousebirds tempting us away from our breakfasts.

Speckled mousebirds tempting us away from our breakfasts.

Yellow-fronted tinkerbird outside our vehicles.

Yellow-fronted tinkerbird outside our vehicles.

Zebras on our commute.

Zebras on our commute.

Rüppell's long-tailed starling adding material to a nesting cavity near the boat launch.

Rüppell's long-tailed starling adding material to a nesting cavity near the boat launch.

Warthog with a yellow wagtail.

Warthog with a yellow wagtail.

When we arrived at the boat launch, the sun was shining and the air was warming up. We had some time and while I lathered on more sunscreen, we got our fist looks at warthogs. I had no idea they were so cuddly with each other and that hey had to kneel with their front legs to eat vegetation! I made sure to take some video for Non Birding Bill (above). Barbets, starlings and swallows surrounded and delighted us. And then it was time to board.

 I give a lot of boat programs in the US and personal floatation devices are mandatory. I have comfortable ones that were made specifically for women (thank you PFDiva). Personal floatation devices weren’t offered at Mabamba wetlands in our canoe but they were given to us for Lake Mburo. The PFDs we were offered the worst kind too—uncomfortable, ill-fitting and bulky. I decided to test the waters to see how hard they would enforce them. If a PFD doesn’t fit you properly they can be more of a hindrance in water than a life saving system. The boat captain strongly urged, but didn’t push it so I kept mine next to me. I was wondering if I should have made room in my suitcase for my personal PFD since we had so many boat trips in Uganda.

The boats we would take to explore Lake Mburo.

The boats we would take to explore Lake Mburo.

We explored the lake where we were dazzled by African fish eagles, malachite and pied kingfishers and African marsh-harried. Then I spotted my first hippo and forgot about birds. First there was one hippo in the middle of the lake… then they took us to a herd or bloat of hippos (how’s that for a collective noun).

All those lumps are a crash of hippos (another collective noun) on Lake Mburo.

All those lumps are a crash of hippos (another collective noun) on Lake Mburo.

A hippo contemplates if it can kill me as I digiscope it with my Swarovski ATX 65mm scope and iPhone X with a PhoneSkope adapter.

A hippo contemplates if it can kill me as I digiscope it with my Swarovski ATX 65mm scope and iPhone X with a PhoneSkope adapter.

If you watch Fiona videos you get the impression they are delightful creatures who want to splash around with us and get chin scratches. In the wild they are far more menacing and really want to kill anything that gets too close. We watched their faces and backs just break the surface and were surprised at how much they reminded us of whales with air blowing out of the water…from either end of the hippo. I watched people kayak this lake and as much as I love kayaking, I’d never kayak anyplace there were hippos.

Hippo poop!

Hippo poop!

Part rail, part cool with a little bit of duck thrown in. This secretive bird is a finfoot.

Part rail, part cool with a little bit of duck thrown in. This secretive bird is a finfoot.

As we cruised along the shore we found more secretive birds like white-backed night-heron, finfoot and giant kingfisher--check the eBird list for Michael O’Brien’s photo of the kingfisher. Imagine seeing a kingfisher that is the size of a crow. I almost wet myself.

As we kept near the shore we did find a common sandpiper bobbing on top of a rock near another finfoot. As we approached the finfoot the rock burst out of the water to reveal they were in fact a couple of hippos who were not happy with us. The boat backed up immediately and we survived.

I was taking a picture just as the “rocks” started to move.

I was taking a picture just as the “rocks” started to move.

The hippos running amuk when we unknowingly got too close. Not digiscoped. Yikes.

The hippos running amuk when we unknowingly got too close. Not digiscoped. Yikes.

Water thick-knees were all along the shore of the lake.

Water thick-knees were all along the shore of the lake.

And in case anyone asks, yes I did see the fish eagle.

And in case anyone asks, yes I did see the fish eagle.

The view from my safari vehicle with another not far behind.

The view from my safari vehicle with another not far behind.

 We returned to land and explored more of the park both on foot and in our safari vehicles. Below are more photos of birds and animals we saw during our stay there. You can see our full eBird list an even more photos of Lake Mburo here. Our eBird lists for Mantana Tented Camp are here and here. And the lists from driving around the park are here, here and here.

A herd of impala chilling in the shade on the side of the road.

A herd of impala chilling in the shade on the side of the road.

Digiscoped image of the male impala’s head taken from our safari vehicle.

Digiscoped image of the male impala’s head taken from our safari vehicle.

Broad-billed roller digiscoped from the vehicle.

Broad-billed roller digiscoped from the vehicle.

Crested francolin.

Crested francolin.

Red-necked francolin

Red-necked francolin

Spot-flanked barbet.

Spot-flanked barbet.

African pied wagtail looking for tasty morsels inside warthog noses. Ew.

African pied wagtail looking for tasty morsels inside warthog noses. Ew.

Madagascar bee-eater.

Madagascar bee-eater.

Red-chested cuckoo.

Red-chested cuckoo.

Pygmy mongoose trying to assess if it could kill me and eat me.

Pygmy mongoose trying to assess if it could kill me and eat me.