I went to the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival in Homer, Alaska--which is a delightful festival, I highly recommend it. I met a ton of people who were originally from Minnesota and for one reason or another had moved to Alaska. I can see why, it's beautiful and great for people who enjoy the outdoors. Homer actually reminded me quite a bit of northern Minnesota--only with glaciers and mountains.
As I was birding along Homer Spit, I saw the above sign and suddenly remembered this was where you used find Jean Keene the Eagle Lady (another former Minnesotan). She lived along the spit and collected fish from various sources as well as roadkill moose to feed 200 - 300 bald eagles a day in the winter. That's a lot of bald eagles. Many enjoyed it--especially tourists and wildlife photographers (if you Google search "bald eagle flock" the first several photos are from the Eagle Lady feeding spot). Local hotel owners also appreciated a boom in business in winter. But some residents were not so thrilled to have eagles perched on their cars or homes and pooping all day. So the town of Homer has banned the feeding of predatory and scavenging birds, grandfathering her in so she could continue. But when she died, the eagle feeding stopped.
Two friends from Minnesota, Lynne and Sue came up to the fest and we got to spend some time together. Sue brought along a couple of photos of another friend named Michelle. I love Michelle, she takes photobombing to another level, knows lots about native plants and is always a good time at Birds and Beers...but there's one way we differ: she hates travel. She hates it so much she has said that her goal is to never have a passport.
So we brought along her avatar in the form of Flat Michelle and began posting photos of her on Facebook. Michelle says it's her favorite form of travel.
One of the places Lynne, Sue and I birded was Anchor Point--which is great for sea ducks, shorebirds and sparrows. There were a gazillion eagles and unlike Homer, people are allowed leave piles of unwanted fish on the beach. You could get quite close to the them, they really are used to people. I suggested that we put Flat Michelle in one of the fish piles and step away. We could then digiscope her with some bald eagles right next to her face.
We had two different Flat Michelles. One kicking it with a beer bottle and one looking freaked out. We thought with a close proximity to eagles it would be funnier to start out with freaked out Michelle--you'd look freaked if an eagle was eating a dead fish next to your head, right? We placed it in front of a pile of fish that some eagles had been chowing on. We walked back, I set up my scope and we waited...
Eventually an eagle flew over, but it flared up when it saw Flat Michelle and circled a few more times. It landed nearby and just stared at her. A few more eagles flew in but like the first, just lingered along the periphery, occasionally squeaking in apparenty disapproval. The majestic eagles, all reluctant to land near the picture. Gulls and crows flew in but like the eagles, everyone kept their distance.
The first to let down their guard were the northwestern crows. As soon as one got some food, the others flew in and gobbled up all the fish they could before the eagles and gulls moved in.
Several more bald eagles flew over and around the fish pile, but none would get near it with Flat Michelle. I thought once the crows showed that it was safe the eagles would join, but they were having none of it.
After awhile I thought it would be fun to get a time lapse video of Flat Michelle. Here it is:
Soon, another fisherman dumped a pile of halibut on the beach. And not just fish carcasses that have been filleted already but a few completely intact specimens. The eagles immediately flew over and completely ignored our mostly picked over fish pile. I suggested to Sue that we try that tastier pile and maybe use the beer version of Michelle. I wondered if her wide-eyed expression and both hands up was a threatening site to an eagle? So we placed the relaxed, chill beer drinking picture with the pile and stepped way back.
Here's another time laps with the "beer Michelle."
We also made a movie trailer so Michelle could see the fun she had around Homer, Alaska.
Apparently people think birders are as creepy as clowns.
This podcast is brought you by WildSide Nature Tours. Come with me to an ancient land to watching thousands of migratory birds like common cranes, storks, spoonbills and red kites. We'll also look for Palestine sunbird, jungle cat and white-throated kingfisher on my Raptor Bonanza Tour in Israel in November--history, culture and birds all combine for the birding trip of a lifetime. Israel is one of the most unique countries you can visit for birds, it's a major flyway for European and Asian birds as they head south into Africa.
This podcast is also brought to you by Holbrook Travel. Would you like to get away to Central America and hone your smartphone digiscoping technique on toucans, parrots and dazzling hummingbirds? Join me in Belize next March.
Some duck stamp artists are not happy about a proposed change to the stamp art.
This is the most badass red-tailed hawk you will see this year.
I've kind of transitioned in the last year or so to do less surveys and more writing and giving programs. I love bird survey work, but it's taxing physically both on your body and your time. Basing each week on airports and storms is less exciting as I get older. Spending times in airports over 30 weeks in a year makes it hard to connect with friends. Sure, there is social media, but that's not the same as being there for, "Hey, I had a bad day, can we grab a drink tonight or breakfast tomorrow?"
A common question I get from friends who knew about my shift in careers is, "Do you miss the travel?"
No, partially because I will never stop traveling. I'm just more selective about the types of travel I will do now. That's not to say that there won't be things I miss. I love point counts and I think that's why I'm drawn to big sits (if you're going to be around the Twin Cities, my park is hosting one on April 30) or simply working my patch over by my house. You have an idea of what will be there but it really takes just staying in one spot over and over to get the big picture.
Also, just sitting in one spot gives birds and animals a chance to get used to you and in some cases, come over and check out you out. And some of my best birding moments have been on bird surveys.
I've always had a fondness for roadrunners since I was kid. It may have been because there was a cartoon roadrunner on tv or that my grandparents lived in New Mexico and it was their state bird. I even had a carved roadrunner that played "Kind of the Road" when you wound it up. As a kid I remember thinking that if there were Smurfs in the desert southwest, I bet they'd tame roadrunners and ride them.
When my family took a road trip out in New Mexico, my parents would periodically say from the front seat of the car, "Oh, there goes a roadrunner." Being the youngest sitting in the middle seat in back and being super short, I never got to see them. I thought this incredibly unfair since I would be the one most interested in seeing one. I never really got a great look at a roadrunner as a kid. We stopped someplace for a bathroom break and one ran away from us, but nothing like the quality time one can get with a cardinal.
Throughout the years when I've been in range of roadrunners, I've had flashes while driving or watched one scurry in backyards, but just not time to hang out with a roadrunner and really get some great shots. With some birds, I lament as they stay out of reach, but I also realize that at some point I'll get an opportunity, I just need to be patient and wait.
I finally had my roadrunner moment last summer.
One morning I started my first survey spot, unwrapped my gas station taco and pressed start on my stopwatch to start my point counts. Dickcissels were waking up all around me and then I heard a familiar cooing. It was the coo of a greater roadrunner...and it sounded like it was ten feet away. I froze and scanned to my left where there was a tangle of mesquite.
Sure enough, about fifteen feet away was a greater roadrunner singing away. It was not bothered by me at all. The bird was so close I could only get head shots. After a few minutes, I stepped back away to see if I could get a full body shot.
As I watched the roadrunner sing I thought back to when I was in third grade. My parents moved me to a Catholic school mid-year. It was the first day and our teacher was discussing the desert. She asked the class if we could name animals that didn't need a lot of water so they could live in dry climates. I raised my hand and answered roadrunner. She smiled and said, "No, those only exist in Cartoon Land."
She immediately moved on to another student but I couldn't believe she didn't know about roadrunners. The next morning before school I gathered up my National Geographic Field Guide with the roadrunner page bookmarked, my Wonder of Birds book that had a cool series of roadrunner pictures of the adults killing a lizard and feeding it to their chicks, my collection of state bird stamps that included the stamp for New Mexico that had a roadrunner on it, and a tourist brochure for New Mexico that had a picture of a roadrunner on it. I waited until lunchtime and went to the teacher's lounge--it was a different world then, the teacher's lounge door was open so you could see your teachers smoking and if you needed to, you could come in and ask a question. I went in with all of my birding paraphernalia and up to my new third grade teacher who was talking to the Sister Elizabeth the fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Stahl the social studies teacher and the principal Mr. Greer.
"Hi Mrs. Meyers," I said, "I just wanted to let you know that roadrunners do live in real life and they're the state bird of New Mexico." I opened my books and showed the pictures. "I can see why you might be confused, they're not blue like in Bugs Bunny, they're really brown and sometimes people call them the chaparral cock."
Mrs. Meyers nodded, said she had things to do and left the lounge. I was not her favorite student after that. But it turned out ok, the fourth grade teacher was a nun with a stern reputation. She was also a birder and Sister Elizabeth and I got along just fine when I hit fourth grade. She even gave me a Forebush/May book on the final day of fourth grade.
Anyway, here's a little video that I got of the roadrunner. You might need headphones to hear the call. iPhones don't have the best microphones and the soft call of a roadrunner is going to be overpowered by dickcissels singing away.
If you were unemployed for a few months, which job would you take: