Saturday, November 29, 2008

Purple On The Rocks

From northern Ohio, Kenn writes: Okay, the name of the "Purple" Sandpiper is an exaggeration. The feathers just have a faint purple sheen when they're freshly molted, all right? But these birds are impressive for deeper reasons than just their color.

We were reminded of that during our day of birding the Lake Erie shoreline in blizzard conditions on Nov. 18. Kim already told you about our visit to Huron Harbor early in the day (see her post "Extreme Birding"). The highlight of the afternoon came at Headlands Beach State Park, east of Cleveland, where we found two Purple Sandpipers along the breakwater.

The Purple Sandpiper is an incredibly tough creature. Its nesting range straddles the Arctic Circle in eastern Canada, mostly in areas that few birders ever visit. It stays in that freezing Arctic climate until very late in the fall. Then it just comes south to the colder regions of the Atlantic Coast, where it spends the winter scrambling around on coastal rocks that are battered by the waves. On the map here, red is the normal summer range, dark blue is the normal winter range, pale blue is where winter stragglers are seen, gray is where migrants pass through. Notice how much of the winter range is up in Canada -- on the rocky edge of Newfoundland, where freezing spray coats the rocks in wind chills of 40 below zero. Notice also that Lake Erie isn’t on the normal route at all (the text that goes with this map mentions that this is a rare visitor on the Great Lakes). We were cold today while we were watching the birds, but I’ve never been warm while I was watching Purple Sandpipers.

Robert Hershberger spotted the birds first, ahead of us as we were making our way out along the huge jumbled rocks of the breakwater. We stalked them cautiously, but eventually we realized that they were coming toward us! Stunningly unconcerned about our presence, they kept coming closer until they were practically at our feet.

What remarkable birds these were! We could see every detail of their sleek plumage, their stout orange legs, their blunt orange-based bills. Clambering about on the rocks at the very edge of the water, they were sometimes wading belly-deep, sometimes submerged when another wave crashed against the breakwater. We were bundled up in as many layers as we could carry and we were still chilled through, stung by the sleet hitting our faces -- but these Purple Sandpipers, tough and beautiful, seemed oblivious to the freezing blasts. Another tough and beautiful creature, Kim, found that her camera batteries had died in the cold, so she walked back half a mile to the parking lot to get fresh batteries and then stood in the driving wind and sleet and snow to shoot the Purple Sandpipers. Conditions were challenging for photography (slanting lines of snowflakes cross all the images, and in some we can see sleet piling up on the backs of the birds), but Kim got her pictures.

Thinking about the extraordinary tameness of these birds, it occurred to me that they might not have had any prior experience of humans as something to be feared. They had come from a vast northern wilderness, and if they had come straight from the Arctic to this wild stretch of lakeshore, it was possible that we were the first humans they had ever seen.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Viva la Guia, Indeed! BEWARE--This gets kinda mushy!

Kim Writes: When Kenn and I first started getting acquainted, it was a loooong distance relationship that took place almost entirely by phone. He was still in Tucson, Arizona, and I was in Carey, Ohio.

I still remember the very first words he said to me when I finally got up the nerve to call him on the phone. In a very deep (and very sexy) voice he said, simply ~ “This is Kenn.” It took me a couple of seconds to recover and respond because my heart was saying, "This is the love of your life!"
I love it when my heart's right!!

After the initial “wow moment” our conversations deepened, and we shared things with each other that we’d never shared with another soul. I was totally in love with him after the first two or three conversations---and then he told me about the Guia! He was fighting to get it published and facing some pretty serious adversity. The costs were mounting, and he sounded determined, but battle weary. I was incredibly moved by his vision and dedication (fueled by stubbornness) and I gave him every bit of positive energy I had and expressed my total -- all out belief in this book and what it could do!
Well, obviously Kenn and good prevailed, the Guia became a reality, and I fell completely in love with this amazing man!

Inspired by an idea "borrowed" from Tucson Audubon, I developed a Guia donor program through the Observatory. BSBO purchases copies of the book from the publisher at a special rate. People "purchase" a book at a special donor rate of $12, sign a name plate identifying them as the donor, and BSBO ships the books off to several partners across the U.S. and Mexico to be used in programs that reach out to our Latin American brothers and sisters. The whole idea is that if we can create awareness and appreciation for birds among this huge audience, it's that much more support for conservation. You can learn more about the program--and donate a book!--through the BSBO website.

One of our biggest partners is the Sonoran Joint Venture. Through their Education and Outreach Coordinator, Jennie Duberstein, we have arranged for hundreds of donated books to be shipped to SJV. SJV has offered a number of training workshops over the past few years, focusing on topics such as how to be a bird guide, basic bird identification, and bird monitoring. The following is an excerpt from an article written by Jennie for our Observatory newsletter. Jennie writes: Initially we went to these workshops armed with a stack of ten copies of the English version of the Kaufman Guide to the Birds of North America (generously donated by the Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt Company), a hodge-podge of other English language North American field guides, and a handful of donated pairs of binoculars of varying quality.

Although having field guides in English made it challenging, workshop participants still gained basic skills in how to use a field guide and binoculars to identify and monitor birds. But when you don't have your own field guide or binoculars, it makes it very difficult to put your new skills to use.

The publication of the Kaufman Guía de Campo a las Aves de Norteamérica has provided the SJV (and Spanish-speakers everywhere) with a fabulous new tool. Participants in our workshops are now able to not only look at the pictures in a field guide, but read about habitat, behavior, diet, and other important life history information about birds. And thanks to the generous donations of members and supporters of Black Swamp Bird Observatory, the SJV has been able to provide each workshop participant with his or her own copy of the Guía.

How cool is that?!! I feel so blessed and so honored to play a small role in getting the Guia out there and into the hands of people who might just change the world.

To date, more than 500 copies of the book have been donated! 500 copies!! A huge thank you to Kenn, Jennie D, Black Swamp Bird Observatory, Tucson Audubon, and all of the donors who believed in this book and its potential enough to be a part of our mission!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Viva la Guia

From Cloud Nine over Ohio, Kenn writes: Lisa White, my editor for the last several years at my publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, e-mailed me a short while ago with some very good news.

First, some background. From the time my field guide to North American birds was published, in October 2000, I had this ambition to bring out a version of the book in Spanish. I'd been living in Arizona, traveling a lot in California and Texas and Florida, and I knew that I heard a lot of Spanish being spoken on the street. The latest census figures at the time showed that something like 28 million U.S. citizens spoke Spanish at home. Of course, I knew that most of those individuals were bilingual, and could use an English-language bird guide if they really wanted to. But my whole aim was to get more people interested in birds. So I figured, why not give them a bird guide written in the language in which they were most comfortable?

The opportunity came a few years later. The publisher decided to change the cover design of the book (the first edition had had a Scarlet Tanager on the cover), and they gave me the opportunity to make changes to the interior of the book as well. Since they were having to reprint it anyway, they gave me the go-ahead to get the book translated into Spanish, to bring that edition out at the same time as the new English printing.

It was, I admit, a time-consuming and expensive project. I found a great translator, Patricia Manzano Fischer, who works on bird conservation in Mexico. We enlisted great help from the Mexican ornithologist Hector Gomez de Silva. Still, I had to edit all the Spanish text to fit the page layout, and I put up the money to pay for the translation myself. I definitely lost a lot of money on this project, but I wasn't trying to make a profit, I was trying to make a difference. And we've had some great feedback from the border regions and from northern Mexico, indicating that thousands of people are actually using the book and getting a lot out of it: students, biologists, park rangers, naturalists, teachers. At least in some measure, the Guia de campo Kaufman a las aves de norteamerica is achieving its goal of bringing more people into an appreciation of birds.

The first printing came out in 2005 and has been selling slowly and steadily since. What Lisa White told me today is that this book, this Spanish-language bird guide, is about to go back for a second printing. Right now the economic climate is really tough for publishers, and it means a lot to me to know that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt believes in this book enough to invest in another printing.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Luck of the Amish

From Holmes County, Ohio, Kenn writes: When I moved to Ohio about four years ago, one of the big surprises for me was to learn that the east-central part of the state has a very active community of Amish birders.

The Amish country centered on Holmes County, Ohio, attracts many tourists. This is partly because it's the most beautiful rural country you can imagine, and partly for the novelty of seeing the traditional lifestyle of the Amish people, living without electricity and traveling by horse and buggy. The lifestyle may be "simple" in some ways but there's nothing simple about the people, who are hard-working and savvy and well educated about the world. And some of them are extremely sharp birders, attuned to every callnote overhead and every flit in the thickets, aware of every bird in their surroundings. Some of Ohio's top birders happen to be Amish, and it's a pleasure and an inspiration to go birding with them.

None of their beliefs prevent the Amish from using good binoculars and telescopes. And in fact, Ohio's best-known dealer of optics for birding is an Amish gentleman named Robert Hershberger, who owns a shop called Time & Optics Ltd near Mt. Hope. Kim has known Robert for several years, and now he's a friend of mine as well. We spent the last two days birding with him: Tuesday along the Lake Erie shoreline, and yesterday in areas closer to his home base in Holmes County. Robert showed us all kinds of birds: Pileated Woodpecker in the woods near Mohican, American Kestrels in the open country, flocks of American Robins feasting on crabapples at the local arboretum, Pine Siskins everywhere in this invasion year. And in the evening, Robert and his wife Barbara welcomed us into their home to spend the evening with their family.

Robert Hershberger and Time & Optics Ltd have been big supporters of the Ohio Young Birders Club, and Robert's own kids are the most adorable tykes you could ever meet. They were shy at first, but it wasn't long before Kim was down on the floor romping with them. Robert and I were talking about details of bird distribution and migration, with Kim tossing in comments periodically from amid the heap of laughing children on the floor. Altogether it was a delightful evening, capping off a delightful two days, and we felt privileged to have been there.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Extreme Birding

From Huron, Ohio, Kim Writes:
You have the sense that a birding trip—any trip—is going be good when it starts out looking like this~

Today I did something that I’ve wanted to do for years. I spent the day freezing my bird-loving behind off birding the Eastern Lake Erie shore line with a very fine group of boys. My posse included: Kenn Kaufman, Robert Hershberger (of Time & Optics LTD), Samuel Weaver, Phil Chaon, Jeb Chaon, and Ethan Kistler.

Our first stop was the Huron Harbor. I have never seen so many Bonaparte’s Gulls in my life! Seriously. The place would have made Alfred Hitchcock run screaming. We estimated somewhere in the neighborhood of 8,000 at the end of the break wall.

The sight and sounds of the massive flock were almost overwhelming; but at the same time, completely wonderful. “Bonee’s” are such sleek, elegant gulls. Alongside the Ring-billed Gulls in the area, they made the Ring-billeds look lumpy and dumpy. Yes, it sucked to be a Ring-billed at this spot.

But, it wasn’t just about gulls. We had repeated fly-bys from a young Pomarine Jaeger, a distant Surf Scoter hauling rectrices West, and great looks at a Long-tailed Duck as it flew in over us and landed about 300 yards away.

It felt so good to be out braving the elements to see birds. It made me feel kinda tough; like extreme birding. I thought this sign had a somewhat different connotation this time of year. As if to say, "Hey fool, it's cold out here." "You stand around idle for too long and you might not wake up!"

Now you have to understand that it wasn’t just that we were out in the bitter cold. ugh ugh. On top of a stiff North wind, and freezing temps, getting to the end of the break wall--where all the action was--
proved to be challenging as well. Slippery, uneven surfaces, with large gaps between some of the massive rocks revealing deep crevices just waiting to gobble up a $2000 scope if you miscalculated your step…Oh yeah, extreme birding!

We were out at the end of the break wall for a long time before finally deciding that we had to move on to the next spot. When we left, I walked back along the break wall with a little “Chick Swagger” goin on, and singing that old Bob Seagar tune in my head. Remember, “They Love to Watch Her Strut?” That’s right...Me, the lone female in this flock of boy birders, showin the boys a thing or two.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Pretty Cool Day...Literally and Figuratively!

From "Home Base", Kim writes: After attending the 75th annual banquet of the Toledo Naturalists’ Association (TNA) last night, this morning I loaded up 12 lucky TNA members (chosen from a lottery) and, along with Kenn and guest star Pete Dunne, I took them all birding to some of our favorite spots, i.e., Magee Marsh and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. Believe it or not, this was Mr. Dunne’s first visit to our area. I took a photo just to prove he was actually here.
He teasingly told me that he was going back to New Jersey and telling everyone that he hadn’t seen a single warbler, and that the place had been seriously overrated. I told him he had to come back in May. He told me he’d have to retire first.

At some point during the trip I had this sort of weird experience where time and space were passing by in snapshot moments. I realized that I was driving this awesome bus owned by the bird observatory where I am the director, and I was chauffeuring two of the world’s most recognized and acclaimed birders and authors. It was a good day to be Kim!

We saw some great birds too. On the way into Magee, just past the visitors' center, I spotted a Great Horned Owl perched up high on a snag. It posed for several minutes allowing great looks for everyone. Cool! Lots of swans around, Trumpeter and Tundra, and we had a great time trying to separate the two species. Ducks were plentiful too, with great looks at Northern Shovelers, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, and Northern Pintails.

Back at the famous boardwalk I forced everyone to pose for photos, and after everyone ran away from me and my camera, I walked a few feet back on the boardwalk. Wow! What the change in seasons can do to a place. As I stood there all alone it was almost as if I could hear the echoed voices of spring---birders calling out to each other---“Burnie at 9:00." "Oh…Oh look here--Black-throated green right over my head." "Yeah, but check out this gorgeous Parula three feet from my face!"
It’s like that--here in this magical place. Even now, with winter crackling all around, the boardwalk looking like a tapestry, decorated with the molted leaves from trees now sporting their winter plumage, and nary a bird in sight--
save the occasional fly-over of Ring-billed Gulls--the place still has an energy that makes your heart beat a little bit faster. I love this place; and I think it loves me too!

After leaving Magee, we headed for Ottawa, and drove through the auto tour route -- opened especially for our trip. While the wind was howling and the wind chills freezing outside--we all stayed toasty inside the awesome BSBO Bird Bus. I have a lit'l rap song I do about "my" bus. I'll subject you all to it eventually!

Today was a big day--for sure--but it was just another chapter from a very crazy weekend. The festivities kicked off with our band’s first live performance in Port Clinton on Friday night! It was a benefit concert for the Port Clinton High School girl’s basketball team. We're sort of the "house band" for a place called Mango Mamas, which has a very large space, and the place was packed!! While we still need to add more songs to our arsenal, things went pretty well. The first set is a little more "subdued" but the second set is filled with high energy rock! It felt so good to be on stage singing my heart out! I’m really looking forward to the next gig on December 5th. Kenn was great on bass guitar, and was rewarded with a brand new “toy” at the end of the night, when a friend of ours delivered a Rickenbacker bass that he hauled back all the way from South Carolina. He made it clear that Kenn didn’t HAVE to take it--but, once we cracked open the case and saw this blond beauty--I knew she would be with us for a long time! Check it out….

I love our life!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Birders and Rockers

From Port Clinton, Ohio, Kenn writes: So, yeah, we're crazed about birds, but that's not the only thing in our life. We're also crazed about everything else in nature, from butterflies to bats, from fish to ferns, from reptiles to rocks. Especially rocks. We spent last night rocking out with our classic-rock band, 6-7-8-OH, playing a major gig at Mango Mama's in Port Clinton. There were probably more than 200 people there at the peak of the night. Kim is the lead singer, and I'm not exaggerating when I say she's fabulous; people go crazy when she launches into hits from Led Zepplin or Pat Benatar or Bon Jovi. I'm the bass player, so I get to hang out on the back of the stage with the drummer and enjoy the scene from that perspective. The local paper did a story about the band a couple of nights before the gig, and it was the first time I'd seen myself referred to in print as "a noted bird expert and bass guitarist" -- no kidding! But there are surprising numbers of keen birders who are also rock musicians. Maybe we'll write about that in more depth at some point. In the meantime, we're going to be playing at Mango Mama's again on December 5th, for anyone who happens to be in the area.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Galapagos memories

From somewhere out in cyberspace, Kenn writes: Just looking at the calendar (and at the falling thermometer) and realizing that a year ago today, we were on the Equator, in the Galapagos Islands. I was one of the leaders on a tour organized by Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. Although I'd been there before, this was Kim's first visit to those famous and enchanted islands.

The bird on the Galapagos that everyone has heard about is the Blue-footed Booby. And, admittedly, it's hard to ignore. Sailors in centuries past called these birds "boobies" because they seemed too dumb to be afraid of humans. Actually, they (like the other birds on the Galapagos) evolved in a setting where there weren't any large predators on land, so they have no natural instinct to fear us. What they do have is really impressive blue feet.

Birders who come here are interested to see the Blue-footed Boobies, of course, but we also want to see everything else, and there are a lot of other specialties of this archipelago. The Swallow-tailed Gulls are spectacular in their own way -- long-winged, long-tailed gulls, sharply patterned in black, white, and gray. The weird thing about them is that they're active mainly at night. Gulls elsewhere in the world may be active at night sometimes (like, foraging in the garbage dump at night if there are lots of lights on) but the Swallow-tailed Gull is mostly nocturnal by choice. Several times when our boat was going from one island to another at night, we would see these gulls flying around over the open ocean, passing through the ship's lights and disappearing into the darkness.

The mockers on the Galapagos may not look so interesting but they're very significant from the standpoint of history. People talk about Charles Darwin coming to the Galapagos and being impressed by the diversity of the finches there -- the group is even referred to as "Darwin's Finches" -- but in fact, Darwin didn't think much of these scuzzy little birds. They all looked about the same to him, so he tossed all his specimens in a box and didn't even bother to label which islands they'd come from. But Darwin did notice that the mockingbirds looked different on the different islands, and that set him to thinking about this idea of evolution.

That picture above is of the form of Galapagos Mockingbird that lives on Santa Cruz Island. We took the picture with a regular lens, not even a telephoto. The birds and other wildlife here are absurdly tame. Sometimes we had to back up away from some bird to get a sharp focus or even to get the whole bird in the frame! The candid photo below shows Kim hard at work photographing Galapagos Sea Lions on the beach on Espanola Island ... a lot of our wildlife photography here required a similar level of effort.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Landing in The Valley

From Harlingen, Texas, Kenn writes: What could be more festive than a big gathering of birders? A big gathering of birders in the southernmost tip of Texas! The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, held every November in Harlingen, was one of the first birding festivals established in North America (2008 is its 15th year), and it's still one of the best. Kim and I were here together in 2004 and we're back this year because I'm giving the keynote talk tonight. Although, as I pointed out to the organizers, they don't have to twist our arms to get us to come here.

For sheer variety year-round, the lower Rio Grande Valley is probably the single best birding area in the United States. It features a lot of species that you just can't find anywhere else north of the border, like the spectacular Green Jay (pictured here), a big colorful flycatcher called the Great Kiskadee (after its raucous call), the huge Ringed Kingfisher, the spunky little Least Grebe, and many more. This area also has a mix of birds from the eastern and western U.S., big concentrations of migrating birds in spring and fall, vast flocks of water birds along the coast, and a wintertime climate that's a bit gentler than what you'd find in, say, Chicago or Minneapolis. The migrating humans known as "Winter Texans" discovered this area long ago, and migrating birders are increasingly aware of the lower Rio Grande Valley, to the extent that you can say "The Valley" and birders everywhere will know what you mean.

With such a natural treasure of birds, it was natural that the local community would seize on the opportunity to hold a festival. Our good friend Nancy Millar, who works with the McAllen Chamber of Commerce just up the Valley, played a big part in promoting ecotourism / bird tourism here. She teamed up with local birder Jan Wyrick and with Father Tom Pincelli, the Harlingen priest who is one of the Valley's top expert birders, and they put together a winning combination for the first festival. The event features daytime and evening programs, field trips to birding hot spots all over the Valley, and an exhibit / vendor area where visitors can try out the latest optics, learn about organizations, see artwork and photography, buy books, and generally enhance their experience.

A lot of the top birders in the country come to this festival every year as speakers, exhibitors, and field trip leaders. Because of our crowded schedule, Kim and I could only make it for part of the festival this year. We're looking forward to seeing a lot of our friends tonight and tomorrow. But first we have to rush out and look at those Green Jays and other birds!