Birds and Beers

The next Birds and Beers is Tuesday, November 18, 2008 at 6pm at Merlin's Rest.

Birds and Beers is an informal gathering of birders of all abilities--if you're interested in birds, you're invited. You can meet other birders--maybe find a carpool buddy, ask about where to find target birds, share cool research projects you might be working on, ask a bird feeding question, share life lists, share some digiscoping tips, promote your blog--the sky is the limit. It's low key and it's fun.

Our Texas version of Birds and Beers turned into a blogging meeting. We had some of the guys from Round Robin, Born Again Bird Watcher, Flying Mullet, WildBird on the Fly (pictured above), birdspot, The Birder's Library, and Clay Taylor (also pictured above and who is working on a blog, but not quite ready to debut it).

In this photo we have a brother of a blogger on the left, The Birder's Library in the middle, and Amy on the right who is friends with Flying Mullet (who blogs some great birding down in her neck of the woods in Florida). Amy does not have a blog. We were trying to talk her into starting a birding gossip blog. The rest of us could feeder gossip and she could post it without it ever being traced to us. Due to the uninteresting birder gossip and her lack of interest, it was not started.

Above is Born Again Birder looking sinister next to a smiling bird spot. I told John to look a little more friendly (as I know him to be) and got this:

He looks a little less serial killerish, but birdspot's eyes are closed. Doh! Incidentally, Born Again Bird Watcher did a much better job of chronicling the Texas Birds and Beers, be sure to check out his photos. We had a great time laughing at the Lone Star and then we learned that birdspot is an award winning bird caller. Here is a video so you can hear her do a dead on rock pigeon:

Talented! I have to admit, birdspot and I must be connected on some weird level. We both have cool glasses and not the usual birder fashion sense. We are both on Twitter and she will often write a tweet that I was just thinking about. Before either of us knew each other I was doing Birds and Beers and was doing Birds and Beer (she writes Twitter updates about birds she sees when she's having a beer) Also, we both ordered the same beverage at Birds and Beers: single malt Scotch with water on the side. Freaky! Although, I am not the artistic talent she is.

South Padre Island Birding

Amy, Clay, and I had great looks at other birds besides the osprey starting a nest. We started the morning at the jetty where many fishermen gather, as do birders. We saw so many dolphins, it could have qualified as a starling flock. But we were not after marine mammals, we wanted to scan the birds. Now, here's an interesting trio. Three different birds, can you tell what they are? I'll save identifying them until the end of the post in case you would like to try and figure out the id yourself. These were three common birds loafing on the beach. Warning, clues will to the id are ahead, so if you want to try and figure out the id, grab you field guide before going any further.

While we were watching the birds on shore, Amy noticed a hitchhiker on my scope--why it was a honeybee. How fitting that she decided to hang on my scope. She was slow and lethargic. I was not sure if she was just at the end of her foraging life or chilled from the cool winds. If you look at the wear on her wings, I think she's old and at the end of her life.

Clay was very excited to see caspian terns (the tern on the right). They are big and flashy terns, with a noticeable red bill. We see them in Minnesota during migration. They are so large that even Non Birding Bill has commented on them when we saw some flying over nearby Lake of the Isles. This tern was next to a royal tern (the tern on the left), a slightly smaller tern compared to the Caspian. And if you ever are feeling bad about your bird id skills, take heart in knowing that even John J. Audubon himself had trouble telling these two species apart! According to Birds of North America Online:

"In his monumental Birds of America, Audubon depicted neither Caspian nor Royal, but instead what he called a Cayenne Tern, Sterna cayana — mostly Royal, but with some ad-mixture of Caspian features."

As we continued on, we found both brown pelicans and American white pelicans. I've seen both, but never together. I knew American white pelicans were huge, but it never occurred to me that they are twice the size of brown pelicans--crazy.

We headed over to the convention center where we found a fun little water feature. You might hear and read that moving water is the best way to attract birds to your yard, that is put to good use in many of the parks and more birdier areas you can visit in the Rio Grande Valley.

At one point, this little water feature had about a dozen orange-crowned warblers coming in for a bathe. They moved so quickly and were so spread out, I couldn't get more than three or four in my view finder at one time. I got a small video of the bathing warblers, it's best viewed at YouTube and if you click on the "watch in high quality" option.

And in keeping with my goal of showing that not every photo comes out great, I'm posting a rather out of focus shot of a black-throated green warbler. There were a couple who flew in to join the orange-crowned warblers, but they were too quick for me.

Just as I got the scope focused on the black-throated, the little terd hopped behind a rock to bathe. Grrr. Curse you, black-throated green warbler, and everything you stand for! I did manage to get the back of the bird's head in focus. Well, it's a start. No one ever said that digiscoping warblers was ever easy.

And now for the id of the three birds: royal tern, Caspian tern, and laughing gull. How did you do?

Osprey On South Padre Island

On Friday morning, I met up with Clay Taylor and WildBird on the Fly. Clay had a little time in the morning for some digiscoping before working the Swarovski booth at the Rio Grande Valley Bird Fest. I was anxious to really give my new Fuji FinePix E900 a good workout (thank you again National Camera Exchange for finding one for me). Clay suggested a trip out to South Padre Island. We saw many cool species, but one of the coolest observations we made was of the above osprey.

It flew right over the 3 of us, only about 15 feet above our heads! We could tell it had something in its talons and at first assumed a fish since the bird landed and appeared to be picking at it. However, when we got it in our scopes, the osprey just had a stick. We wondered what that was all about. Did the bird mistakenly grab a stick out of the water thinking it was a fish and started to eat it, only to find it kind of nasty to rip apart?
The osprey kept staring down at the stick, trying to work something out in its tiny little brain. Was it confused about the lack of fish on the stick? No. It suddenly dawned on us what was going on. Maybe this will help:

It hopped on a nearby by branch and began to bite it. Is this osprey going for some massive fiber in its diet? No. We think it's starting a nest. Notice how the added stick fits among the sawed of branches. I wonder how far it will get with this endeavor? I always wonder what a bird sees that makes it think, "Yes, this rocks, I can totally turn this spot into a safe nest!" I know with osprey, they like to to have a good lookout from all sides of the nest, but what factors do they look for that would make them think that a few hundred pounds of sticks would fit there just nicely.

It was fun to watch the osprey's nictitating membrane (extra eyelid that birds have that they can see through) come over its eye as it chewed on the stick, to protect the eyes from debris flying back in.

The osprey kept hopping back and forth between the crotch holding the start of the nest and the nearby perching branch. Take a look at those massive talons on the bottom of those toes--osprey don't play around, they are all business when it comes to fishing. I just love those crazy, big feet.

Here's a video of it trying to work out what the next step should be (although, the video looks better if you go to the YouTube page itself and click on on "watch in high quality.":

Great-tailed Grackle

Great-tailed grackles are in huge abundance in Texas. Many wake me up outside my hotel room. The evening roosts are spectacular, but the sounds the birds make is down right freaky. I tried to get a video to record the sound. Below is a great-tailed grackle puffing up and giving several clicks and whistles--it almost sounds like camera clicking or weird gears going off. In the background you can hear other great-tailed grackles calling back:

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park

My goodness, I'm tired and just about birded out (as well as incredibly itchy and somewhat stinky). The Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival should almost be called the Birder Reunion Bird Festival since so many of us show up here and connect. I started my Texas birding adventure with a field trip to Bensten-Rio Grande Valley State Park. This was the first place I birded the first time I came to this festival years ago. I love it because it gives you a good sample of the valley specialties. What makes this area to bird so fun is that for a Midwest Girl, you can find yourself in a tropical and exotic area on the cheap. Look at the water and the palm trees in the above photo--how could you not love that?

And the birds are crazy looking to add to the exotic appeal of this area, like the green jays. I never get tired of green jays. Seeing something like that makes you feel like you're on another planet, especially when your husband calls and tells you that it's snowing at home.

And it's not just the birds. Instead of squirrels under the feeder, Bentsen as javelinas! These guys were under every feeding station we visited and weren't that scared of humans, they must have a sense that we won't hunt them and I would guess they know humans are the ones who replenish the bird feeders.

Feeding javelinas is ill advised, as they can easily mistake a finger for a peanut butter sandwich and no one wants to go home with few fingers.

One of the coolest birds in the park was a roosting eastern screech owl. The bird is perched on the edge of a cavity in the tree trunk. Check out how well the bird's feathers blend in with the bark--incredible. This was a particularly exciting eastern screech owl, park staff told our group that it was a mccallii, and it's quite possible that the American Ornithologists' Union will make it a separate species from eastern screech owl. So, I kind of banked a life bird for another day.

Another specialty of the area is the buff-bellied hummingbird also known on Cornell's Birds of North America as the "least-studied hummingbird that occurs regularly in the United States." It's a Mexican species that breeds along the gulf coast and makes it across the border into the US.

Another part of birding in south Texas that is unique is watching helicopters for the border patrol pass by. This helicopter was really low and kept going down to one particular patch, leading us to wonder if some people illegally crossing the border had been found.

All part of the fun.

Okay, fatigue has hit me, more later.

Arriving In Harlingen

The Harlingen Airport is happy to see birders in Texas--look at the size of that banner! I feel so welcomed for the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival.

We had the opening reception last night, which is a great time to reconnect with friends and eat some fancy foods. There was a new addition to the table--live birds. A small cage full of parakeets was put out by catering company (cause see, we're bird watchers). They startled the dickens out of me, but the budgies seemed to be having a great time preening each other and chirping sweet nothings.

I tried to get a photo of birders using a pair of tongs to get a budgie, but to no avail. I asked Jim from Kowa (above). "No way," he said, "your just going to put it in your blog that Kowa eats birds." He then went the extra mile to put his arm around the birds to prove how much he LOVES birds.

Kevin Karlson walked by and I shouted, "Yo, Kevin, do me a favor, put some tongs to the birds."

He also resisted my request, "No, you'll put it in your blog."

I even offered to say nice things about his books in the blog, but he said that I already do say nice things about his books and he appreciates that.

They're on to me!

So, by the time you are reading this, I'll be a digiscoping fool on the Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park. Then I give my Blogging: The New Nature Journal Program, then do a book signing, and then its Birds and Beers. Such a wild and exciting Thursday.

I've already touched based with several bloggers including Flying Mullet, Round Robin, and one third of 10,000 Birds. Will Mike Bergin sway me to the power of The Nature Blog Network...we shall see...

Oh, and bird banders will get a kick out of this:

Bird bites the cover of the book that identifies, ages and sexes them! And it's a house sparrow too! This sparrow latched on to the corner an would not let go, taking out its frustration on being man handled on poor, poor, hard to read Pyle.

Speaking of the Pyle book, there's a second one out. Yes, the bird id book with no photos, that even uses math equations to id birds, and is the necessary evil of every bander's operation now has a part 2! Here's an earlier post I had about Peter Pyle's Identification Guide To North American Birds and I had to chuckle, Ian Paulsen posted a few months ago: "I think every birder will want Pyle's Identification Guide to North American Birds: part 2!!!"

I hope he was kidding. Pyle is NOT for every birder, it's only for the masochistic Jedi birders that use The Force to identify birds. It's this heavy little book that sits on your back when you're sweating over a flycatcher in your hand and asking yourself if you'll be able to try to identify, let alone age and sex it. Then the book says in a gravelly drag queen voice, "No! Do or do not, there is no try."

Scariest bird book out there, I swear.

Birds, Beers, Bald Eagles, Bees, and Rio Grande Valley Fest

Holy Buckets, I am in love with the boys at the Golden Valley, MN National Camera Exchange. My all-time favorite point and shoot digital camera to use for digiscoping is a Fuji FinePix E900. It's been discontinued and hard to find. They found one for me. I'm takin' that bad boy to Texas. The Canon A570 I'm currently using is okay, but the color quality is just not as good as the Fuji. Thank you National Camera in Golden Valley, you boys are the best!

Hey, here's some cool news from WFRV:

A bird that's believed to be the oldest banded bald eagle on record in the upper Midwest has been returned to the wild. The 31-year-old female was hit by a car on state Highway 47 near Fence Lake last month. After recovering, the eagle was released by wildlife officials in Lac du Flambeau on Friday.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the bird was among 6,000 eagles banded in 1977. The average age of adult eagles is 10-12 years old.

Before this bird, the oldest bald eagle according to the Bird Banding Lab longevity records was 30 years and 9 months.

So, I think I'm kinda grateful for my insanely busy schedule this fall. Mr. Neil wanted to move the Kitty hive so it would be inside the newly installed "bear proof fence" before the winter. This is our least friendly hive and the best time to move a hive is at night. I'm sure you can tell how fun and exciting this is just be rereading that last sentence. I alas could not go this week but you can read all about it over at Lorraine's blog. Of the four of us: Non Birding Bill, Mr. Neil, Me, and Lorraine, only NBB is not the bee sting virgin. Lorraine got her's last night.

Don't forget, we got a couple of Birds and Beers coming up. Birds and Beers is an informal gathering of birders of all abilities--if you're interested in birds, you're invited. You can meet other birders--maybe find a carpool buddy, ask about where to find target birds, share cool research projects you might be working on, ask a bird feeding question, share life lists, share some digiscoping tips, promote your blog--the sky is the limit. It's low key and it's fun.

Here are the dates and note that the first date is in Harlingen, TX--in conjunction with the Rio Grande Valley Bird Fest!

Thursday, November 6 at 7:45pm (or after the festival keynote speaker is finished that night). It will be held at The Lone Star, they are holding a table for us.

The next will be back in Minnesota:

Tuesday, November 18 at 6pm at Merlin's Rest.

If anyone is on a Texas birding listserv and wants to post the Harlingen Birds and Beers there, please do. It's open to anyone, even if you are not part of the bird festival.

Speaking of the RGV bird fest, if you are a bird blogger and are going to be there, we're going to have a formal Bird Blogger Meeting in the Alcove at 4:30pm on Friday. This is your chance to meet other bloggers, ask questions, share ideas and network. We're a fun group and we're happy to see you be successful. Please come!

AND if you are someone who has no clue what bird blogging is all about or even what the heck a blog is, I'll be giving a program called Blogging: The New Nature Journal on what bird blogging is all about, how to start one, ideas for what you can blog about, highlights of my blog and other great birding blogs you can find on the Internet. The program is on Thursday at 2pm.

If you're in Texas, I look forward to meeting you. It's gonna be a great time!

Sky Watch Friday Carver Banding

Doh, it's raining this morning, not sure I'm going banding at Carpenter. Well, I have some banding photos from last weekend and it's SkyWatch Friday, I'll work on that and see if the rain subsides:

Years ago, the summer before Non Birding Bill and I moved to Minnesota, we were on vacation with his family at Virginia Beach. We were flipping around tv channels one night and found a documentary about Minnesota--we thought this would be good prep work to watch. We had heard that we should be prepared for cold and snow year round, but beyond that, not much else. The documentary had an interview with Garrison Keillor and he said something about there are a few days in October which are perfect days (in every possible way) in Minnesota and people visit during those days and get that impression. For some reason, that was what stuck out in my mind and every October, I try to watch for that. If you are an optimist, October in Minnesota is the THE BEST. Sunny days that might require a fleece, glowing fall leaves, local farm bounties, and cool nights perfect for snuggling with your favorite person. As long as you don't think about the impending snow and cold which could easily last six months is right behind this perfect month.

Last weekend, I was going to go to Duluth to do go to Frank's hawk blind, but the wind prediction wasn't good and the sparrows were everywhere in the Twin Cities. My buddy Amber had heard that Mark was going to do some migrant banding on Saturday, so I snuck out to join them. Mark normally does banding programs every third Saturday at Lowry Nature Center. This was not a formal program, so Amber spread out a blanket near the nets, Mark set out his equipment and we banded birds in the beautiful October sun. Above is one of the many swamp sparrows moving through. It's such a pretty sparrow, it's too bad they don't visit feeders as much as house sparrows do--people would really dig 'em. I'm going to save that photo, that would be a good hair color at some point.

We got in quite a few orange-crowned warblers. This is the "drabbest of the drab" first year female orange-crowned. If you are one of the peeps going to the Rio Grande Valley Bird Fest next month, learn this bird's chip note--you'll be hearing it a lot. I know we have them in Minnesota, but I always associate them with South Texas. Speaking of which, there is still time to sign up for the bird blogger discount for the Rio Grande Fest. It's going to be awesome, some of the bird bloggers I know are coming include WildBird on the Fly, Born Again Bird Watcher, birdspot, and Mike from 10,000 Birds--oh, it's on! Looks like there's going to be a Birds and Beers too!

But I digress, back to the female orange-crowned warbler (and since it's SkyWatch Friday, pay attention to the blue sky in the back). She really doesn't have much orange to speak of, even in hand. She's a pallet of gray, drab olive, and kinda white.

Here's an adult male--a little more flashy--look at that yellow. And, you can distinctly see the orange in the crown, can't ya? Please tell me I'm not hallucinating, you can see the orange too? Okay, I admit, it is hard to see, so we used the toothpick method to get a look at the orange crown:

Now you can see the orange in that crown! It's never easy to see when the bird is not in hand. I just check Birds of North America Online to find out when one can see the orange crown on the bird in the wild and found this: "Male threat or alarm display can involve elevation of head feathers to display (barely) the orange crown (Bent 1953)."

"Don't make me barely show you my orange crown!!" Maybe these small warblers have a color orange phobia, so a little is all that's needed. Although, I'm not sure what a flock of orange-crowned warbler when confronted with a male oriole. Or perhaps, those orange feathers are so powerful that too much could be lethal? So much more study to be done.

It's always so cute when an insect eating bird tries to peck your fingers--those bills are just so soft--look at that orange-crowned warbler go for Mark's thumb. Earlier, his thumb went through much worse:

Before I arrived, he and Amber got a young male cardinal in the nets. After banding it, he opened his hand to let it go. The male decided to get in one good bite before flying off and then got so into it, refused to let go and hung from his thumb for a moment. It flew off and remarkably, Mark did not need a band aid.

Ah, looks like the rain is easing up, I should hit the road.

2nd Annual Bird Blogger Conference

Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival November 5 - 9, 2008 is the site of the Second Annual Bird Blogger Conference.

What does this mean? Well, a lot of bird bloggers in one place at one time to meet face to face, share ideas, watch some birds, and maybe even meet some potential advertisers and sponsors for your birding blog! Bird bloggers are eligible for a 10% discount and Born Again Bird Watcher and I would like to organize a sit down where we can meet, ask questions and share ideas for better bird blogging--the rest of the time is up to you to go out and enjoy the oh so cool birding!

This is one of the top birding festivals in the country and south Texas is a relatively inexpensive area when it comes to food and lodging. Even if you are not a bird blogger, this is a GREAT festival to attend--here are some of my past entries. Think of it--warm temperatures, green jays, authentic Mexican food, chachalacas, kiskadees, butterflies, javelinas...

Here are the qualifications for the discount:

1. Your blog must have been started sometime before January 31, 2008.
2. Your blog must have regular updates at a minimum of five times a month.
3. If your blog has been inactive for more than 30 days, it will not qualify for the discount.
4. You must promote the Rio Grande Valley Bird Fest periodically in your blog--not every day or every week, but periodically remind your readers that you are going and that it would be great if they came along too--seriously, it really is a great thing to come to. I've been going there for the last three years because it's SO fun.

Speaking of readers, this is a great chance for all of you to come and meet some bird bloggers out there. So, start signing up for some south Texas birding now.

Bloggers who would like more info on the discount rate, please email me at Sharon at Birdchick dot com and I'll help get you set up.