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The Fat Finch Heads to the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival

November 3, 2013

The Fat Finch has now officially gone from “bricks” to “clicks”.  We closed our bricks and mortar store on October 19.  By October 31 we had everything packed up and put into storage. (We won’t mention what an ordeal that was, but anyone who has moved a household or the inventory of a store knows the drill.)  The Fat Finch is expanding and we’re adding lots of new products in anticipation of the holidays.

We are about to embark on the first in a series of new adventures—we’re heading to Harlingen Texas to be a vendor at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival which takes place from November 6-10.  Our car is packed to the gills with goodies to sell, so if you’re planning to attend that event or are in the neighborhood, be sure to stop by.  It will be like visiting our actual store, just in a smaller version.  Lots of finely selected merchandise that will fit easily into your suitcase will be for sale.

The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival is one of the finest birding festivals in the country.  Take a look at the festival program and you’ll see some of the reasons we’re excited to be there.  We’ve been in that part of the country once before and were thrilled to see our first green jay, great kiskadee, crested caracara and many other birds (especially shorebirds) that we’ve never seen before.  And any time you can see an aplomado falcon is, by itself, a reason to get excited.  We’ll be back with more posts from the Festival and our trip.

We’re planning to do some post-retail store reading too (for a change!)  And what more appropriate book to take along on our trip than The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.




September 11, 2013

Leave Your Hummingbird Feeders Up!

hummingbird-8The question arises in the United States and Canada each year about this time:Should we take down our hummingbird feeders so the hummingbirds won’t stay too long and get caught in the cold weather?

The answer is: Leave your feeders up!

The urge to migrate far, far outweighs a bottle full of sugar water. Your hummingbirds will leave when their biological clocks command them to leave, no matter how much food is still available for them. It is likely, in fact, that the hummingbirds at your feeders today are not the same ones that were there two weeks ago. Hummingbird migration has already started and the birds you see today are likely migrants passing through rather than the ones who spent the summer with you.

And, of course, their food supply is dwindling now. Colder nights and cooler, shorter days mean fewer bugs, their primary source of protein, and less nectar from flowers which they also eat in abundance even if human supplied sugar water is available.

But your sugar water is especially helpful to them as they migrate southward. They need immense amounts of energy to migrate successfully and they need to add to their body weight substantially. If you leave your feeders up until the last one has flown through, you will help them maintain that weight for as long as possible and help provide a needed energy boost for the next leg of the journey.

Hummingbird-4For those of our readers who live in the Gulf Coast region of the southern United States, you should leave your feeders out all winter: You may be treated to Ruby-throated Hummingbirds some of whom no longer migrate any further south than your region. Warmer winters and hummingbird feeders have lured some of that species to stay for the winter in your temperate region.

But for the rest of us, it is not yet time to take down our feeders. There are migrating hummingbirds who will thank you to leave them up, with fresh syrup, for a few weeks more.

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A Rare Bird Visits the USA

July 31, 2013

On July 7, 2013 (which just happens to be this writer’s birthday), a rare bird appeared for the first time ever in the United States and best of all, appeared in our neck of the woods.   On that day, a young birder was shooting a video of a least bittern at the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, NM and at the end of the video a Rufous-Necked Wood Rail appeared.  This bird is found in South America and parts of Mexico.

Great excitement in the birding world ensued and visitors from all over the country came to get a glimpse of this rare visitor.  The bird cooperated by staying over a week and usually in a spot that was easily accessible to the viewers.

Stay tuned for a longer post about the wood rail with photos taken during its visit.  We wonder if this bird heard that the rufous (hummingbirds) were returning to New Mexico this time of year and got confused.  And even more interesting?  Where will it go next?


Shapeshifting and the New Crossley ID Guide to Raptors

March 12, 2013

“Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound! Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. No, it’s a plane. No, it’s Superman!”


Well, no. Actually it is a bird.

In fact, it’s the fastest animal on earth. While the cheetah plods along at 70 mph this bird can zoom through the sky up to 240 mph. Plummeting from the heavens and enduring G forces that would kill a person, this paragon of flight and vision, with eyes that see shapes and patterns humans can’t, entered mythology long before Richard Crossley wrote his marvelous new Princeton Crossley ID Guide to Raptors. Another Englishman, J.A. Baker wrote, “Evanescent as flame peregrines sear across the cold sky and are gone, leaving no sign in the blue haze above.” They are, these peregrines, the little brothers and little sisters of Eagle.

“What do they see?” wondered Anaximander of Miletus about these birds two thousand five hundred years ago. About the same time, the Native Americans of North America knew what they saw. Shapeshifting was easier then and many people, not just the shamans, could do it. Later, ordinary people lost the power of flight and only shamans could do it. Soon human flight became metaphorical flight and the idea of the soul as a bird was born. Then flight and intelligence joined. In the Hindu Rig Veda we read, “Among all things that fly, the mind is the swiftest.” Another ancient text proclaims, “Those who know have wings.” Calling someone a “bird brain” is a high compliment indeed.

crossleyraptorsA fine new book is on the way about peregrines and all the other raptors of the world. Princeton’s Crossley ID Guide to Raptors will soon be available and promises to be every bit as useful and as beautiful as the other guides in the series. You can pre-order from our store, The Fat Finch.

Long before people and animals lost the ability to shapeshift, the Apache Black Hactcin held out his hand and a drop of rain fell into his palm. He mixed it with earth and fashioned the first bird from the resulting mud. The bird flew and the Hactcin saw that that the bird needed companions so he grabbed the mud-bird and whirled it around his head, faster and faster. The mud-bird grew very dizzy and began to see many images as it whirled around. He saw hawks and eagles, other raptors, and song birds too. Then the Hactcin stopped whirling the mud-bird and those images became real birds. To this day the raptors created in that Apache’s whirl live in the air and seldom land on the ground because the rain that helped create them fell from the sky.

DIGITAL CAMERAHigh on the mountain in New Mexico known as Shiprock lived the bird-monsters that were eating all the people on the earth. This was before modern raptors. It is said that one of the Navajo Hero Twins, Monster Slayer climbed the huge rock and killed both of the bird monsters. Two fledglings in the nest were terrified, but Monster Slayer decided not to kill them. To the eldest he said, “You will give us plumes for our rites and bones we will use to make whistles.” Whirling the fledgling around his head four times he flung it high in the air and it became First Eagle. To the younger monster bird he said, “You will be an oracle to my people and foretell the future. Sometimes you will tell the truth and other times you will lie.” He whirled that bird around his head four times and, as he did so, the bird’s head became large and round and its eyes grew larger and larger until the bird became First Owl.

Once a water monster made war on the people and flooded the earth. Only one person survived, a young woman. As she was about to drown a great eagle — perhaps the one made by the Apache or maybe the Navajo one — flew over the young woman, allowing her to grab his talons. He flew with her to the top of a spire in the Black Hills where he lived in his aerie. It was the only dry place on earth. There they lived as man and wife and they had two children, a boy and a girl. When the waters finally receded these two children of an eagle and a human returned to the earth and founded the Lakota Nation.

From the Crossley Guide, used with permission

From the Crossley Guide, used with permission

Some scoff at these creation stories from other and older cultures, but doubters may remember that physicists have just found the Higgs Boson, the last remaining particle necessary to confirm the family of elementary particles predicted by the Standard Model of physics. That means one single electron can be in two places at the same time. In fact, it can be everywhere at the same time. It’s sister electron can be at the far end of the universe but it can communicate with her instantaneously, never mind the speed of light. Superposition is real. Nothing is certain. Matter is nothing but highly concentrated energy that shapeshifted into the mass that blurs in the sky above you as Eagle’s little brother, the peregrine, hunts.

The universe is a strange place and we all should remember Niels Bohr’s injunction to no less a person than Albert Einstein. “Albert”, he said, “perhaps your idea of reality is too limited.”


This post is part of Princeton’s Blog Tour and we’re supposed to send you on to the next stop at The Flying Mullet. As they say in Spanish, que le vaya bien. (Travel well.) Thanks to Jessica Pellien of Princeton for organizing the tour. She has done good work.

War on Caterpillars

April 7, 2012

Gail Collins takes note today of the problem Republicans have connecting with women voters. A poll last week disclosed that Mitt Romney trails President Obama by eighteen points among women voters in key states. She quotes Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, as saying, “If the Democrats said we had a war on caterpillars, and every mainstream media outlet talked about the fact that Republicans have a war on caterpillars, then we’d have problems with caterpillars.”

That bothered Gail Collins some, perhaps because she can’t see the connection between women and caterpillars nor can she understand what it was that made Mr. Priebus think of a war on caterpillars of all things. Collins worries, “We’re already losing all the bees, and the bats are in trouble. We do not want these people picking on caterpillars at all.”

But, even if Republicans wanted to have a war on caterpillars, they may be too late. Gardens Alive, Inc. is already on the job.

On our desk is a catalog from that company and on page 52 we see that they are selling 100% roasted caterpillars. For thirty dollars you can have 1,250 of the little buggers delivered to your door-step. For fifty-five dollars they will send you 2,500. The caterpillars, according to the catalog, “contain the fat, protein and potassium insect-eating birds need.” They are mess-free and more convenient than live mealworms because, you see, dehydrated roasted caterpillars, don’t move from the feeder.”

Whew. That’s good news. Dead caterpillars crawling around our yard would worry us almost as much as a war on women.


Thanks to the photographer calling herself Mamageek for uploading her photograph and making it available under the Creative Commons license.





Eight Steps to Great Bird Photography

February 24, 2012



The absolute best way to find birds to photograph is to go out with an experienced birder. No field guide will reliably get you to birds as rapidly. If you don’t know a good birder, join your local Audubon club or call a birding store and ask about local birding hot spots.  And, even when you’re out without a birder, stop anytime you see a group of people with binoculars and spotting scopes. Birders share their delights.

Field guides are the second best way to find birds to photograph. Most field guides have been reduced for your smart phones and computer tablets and they show it. Get the real book. National Geographic’s is the most comprehensive, followed closely by Sibley’s and by Ken Kaufmann’s. Not only do they show you the bird and tell you where it lives and travels, they tell you about its habits. Birds, like all animals, are creatures of habit. More about that in a moment.


For the best telephoto lens, take ten steps forward.  Wear dull clothing, use trees, bushes, grasses, and other natural obstacles to sneak up on the birds. If necessary, crawl, don’t walk. The sooner you forget your natural dignity, the sooner you’ll get fantastic photographs.


You have, as Wendell Berry puts it, come into “the peace of wild things.” Find a likely habitat, sit down, and be silent. The birds will come to you as soon as you are at peace.


Create a bird photography station in your backyard. All you need are feeders, bird seed, and a comfortable place to sit. You can even sit indoors, next to a window.



You are in place, quietly waiting for the birds. Now is the time to check your camera. Is it turned on? Lens cap removed? Are the settings correct? If you are shooting with a modern digital camera, 90% of the time its automatic setting will deliver acceptable photographs. Beware:  It has a built-in bias for a wide aperture and fast speed, meaning that the depth-of-field – the area in focus – will be limited. If you can, manually set the ISO to 200 (Good light) or 400 (Bad light) to minimize digital “noise.”


Ready to shoot? Take three more seconds to compose the photograph. In your mind’s eye divide the scene you are looking at through the camera into equal thirds, vertically and horizontally. Adjust the camera so that the bird or, even better, the bird’s eyes are at one of the nine points where the lines intersect. Don’t put the bird in the precise middle of the frame. That results in a static, boring composition.

Unless you are waiting for the bird to look directly at the camera, leave space on the side of the photograph where the bird is looking. Otherwise, your viewer’s eyes will leave the photograph before seeing all the photograph. And even though almost all birds’ eyes are on the side of their heads, your photographs will be more interesting if the bird is looking toward the camera. Include some habitat that is in focus. (That will be difficult or impossible if you are shooting with large telephoto lenses which have severely limited depth-of-field.)

There is nothing wrong with photographs of perched birds, but action will add interest to your photographs. Try to get shots of take-offs and landings.

Birds telegraph their take-offs. Cranes and shorebirds often stare in the direction of take-off before starting their take-off runs. Birds usually take off and land into the wind. Raptors and other mid-sized birds will crouch just before leaving their perch. Almost all birds defecate in the seconds before take-off. Focus on the bird’s head when you see this behavior and start clicking the shutter at the first move.

Birds in flight require forethought. If you wait until the bird is flying by you, it’s going too fast for your camera’s automatic focus system to keep up. Predict from where the bird will come, pre-focus by depressing the shutter button part way, and wait for the bird to reach that point before taking the photo. If your camera allows burst shooting, take several shots, increasing the odds of getting one that is sharply focused. And remember that a photograph with a bird flying directly toward your camera will emotionally make your viewers participants; not observers.


You’re almost ready now. The only thing left to do is focus, focus, focus.


For bird photography the old maxim of documentary photography, “F8 and be there” works best. You can substitute F5.6 or F11 aperture settings for F8. Modern digital cameras allow you to substitute “automatic” settings.

There is no substitute for being there.

Finally, and most important, remember why you are there.


Kent Winchester


Bee Green, Bee Healthy

May 9, 2011

NPS Photo

Now that gardening season has arrived, it is time for the annual reminder about avoiding pesticide use.

For some years now, we have read the disturbing news about bee colony collapse disorder. The failure of a bee colony, know as colony collapse disorder (CCD), occurs when the inhabitants suddenly disappear, leaving only queens, eggs and adolescent workers behind. The vanished bees are never found; it is likely that they die singly, lost, and far from home.

The loss of pollinators, especially bees, is devastating to food production.   Bees pollinate as much as one-third of the US food supply.

Many theories about the cause(s) of CCD exist and the causes are multiple.  One demonstrated cause is a pesticide called Clothianidin.  It is part of a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. (Yes, cigarettes kill you and now nicotine is killing bees.) This pesticide, manufactured by Bayer Corporation and used to coat seeds (primarily corn seed).  It also appears in products manufactured by Bayer called All in One Rose & Flower Care.

An Earlier Product of Bayer

Bayer is a German company and while Germany has banned the use of clothianidin, the US has not (we’re still “studying” it).  So Bayer still sells it in the US (except in New York State).

So, this year when you’re ready to plant seeds, be sure to plant non-treated, non-genetically modified seeds. When the time comes that you’re reaching for the chemicals to solve a garden problem, take the time to find an organic solution instead.  It will make a huge difference to the wildlife who are at home in your garden.

Bird Songs When Living Alone

November 12, 2010

Galway Kinnell, the poet wrote a series of poems he calls “When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone.” Birds, and a pet snake, appear in many of them. In the seventh of the series he writes:

the least flycatcher witching up “che-bec!”

or the red-headed woodpecker clanging out his music

from a metal drainpipe, or a ruffed grouse drumming

“thrump thrump thrump thrump-thrump-


deep in the woods, all of them in time’s unfolding

trying to cry themselves into self-knowing –

one knows one is here to hear them into shining,

when one has lived a long time alone.

I’m not so sure I agree with his implication that the birds lack “self-knowing” but I won’t deny the beauty of the poem or the marvelous descriptions of the bird songs.

And speaking of bird songs, Enature has a fun test for anyone who wants to take it. You type in your zip code and five birds from your region will test your knowledge of their songs. It’s fun.

Attila the Hum

July 23, 2010

Rufous Hummingbirds have returned to our backyard and the Black-chinned Hummingbirds are not altogether happy about it. To say that a Rufous vigilantly protects whatever feeder or feeders it chooses to protect is an understatement, like calling Attila the Hun, “irritable.”

The backyard is livelier now.

Twilight Tanagers

May 15, 2010

Soldiers, mariners, hunters, backpackers, and birders are aware of three dawns each morning. The first is “Astronomical Twilight.” Astronomical twilight, that period each morning when the disc of the sun is between 18 degrees and 12 degrees beneath the horizon, marked by the faintest lightning of the eastern horizon. It is still much too dark for humans to move around without  supplemental illumination. Hardly any perceptible light arrives yet. It’s more a feeling than visible light. Around here, it currently begins about 4:30 A.M. and ends a bit after 5:00A.M.

Since the migrating flock of Western Tanagers arrived in our yard and we made our great scientific discovery, our days begin at astronomical twilight. The tanker truck, loaded with grape jelly, arrives then. We pump it off the truck into our two-car garage which is the only place we have large enough to contain it all. (I don’t know if we’ll ever get the garage clean again. Maybe the ants will help.)

“Nautical Twilight” arrives about the same time offloading the grape jelly finishes. Nautical twilight is that portion of the dawn when the disc of the sun is 12 degrees to six degrees below the horizon. Now fewer stars remain visible and the horizon is indistinct but discernible. It remains too dark to work outside safely, although the shapes of large objects are barely visible. Robins begin singing toward the end of nautical twilight. Western Tanagers, whose song is similar to a robin’s wait a bit longer to start their day.

We’re too busy to listen to the robins. All the jelly dishes must be retrieved and cleaned and refilled.

It’s 5:30 A.M.

Now “Civil Twilight” arrives. The sun, six degrees beneath the horizon, begins to illuminate the earth. The horizon is clear and only first magnitude stars and planets remain visible. No longer do we need flashlights to do our work for the tanagers, although flashlights remain handy. Other birds are singing and we have only a few minutes left to get the refilled jelly dishes to their appointed holders before the tanagers stir, demanding breakfast.

By sunrise, the feeders are full and we rush inside for a quick breakfast.

After breakfast we spend all the remaining daylight hours shuttling grape jelly to the feeders. One of us must also fill the hummingbird feeders, the seed feeders, and the tray feeders for our other avian guests. Additionally, photos must be taken and that requires getting close and not moving for long periods of time, which gives us time to remember Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer hiding from Jim:

There was a place on my ankle that got to itching, but I dasn’t scratch it; then my ear began begun to itch; and next my back, right between my shoulders. Seemed like I’d die if I couldn’t scratch. Well, I’ve noticed that thing plenty times since. If you are with the quality, or at a funeral, or trying to go to sleep when you ain’t sleepy [or trying to photograph birds in close] – if you are anywheres where it won’t do for you to scratch, why you will itch all over in upward of a thousand places.

Tanagers cannot live by grape jelly alone. They must have protein. Normally they get that from the bugs they eat, but one reason they are here now is the unusually chilly spring. By now they are usually in their favored habitat which is north of here and higher. They prefer coniferous and mixed coniferous forests full of pinons, juniper, Douglas Fir, and Ponderosa Pine. They also like Aspen groves, as long as the Aspen are high enough. But this cooler than normal spring may have kept them lower for longer. And we don’t have as many bugs yet either, so we supplement their grape jelly with peanuts, peanut butter suet, and orange flavored suet. They prefer the orange suet which we place just beneath the tray where the real oranges sit. Tanagers eat oranges too.

But nature is messy, so Starlings come to eat the suet and the White-winged Doves congregate on the tray feeder which has both jelly dishes and peanuts. They must be shooed away from time to time so the tanagers (and the orioles) can get to the jelly.

We doubt that the tanagers are mating yet. We do not live in their favored habitat and we see fewer females. Western Tanagers are probably monogamous, at least for one breeding season at a time, so more females are needed.

The same three twilights occur again after sunset, in reverse order, although we have no time to attend to sunsets and won’t until the tanagers leave us. We consulted an ornithologist who was in the store yesterday. He predicts that the tanagers will leave in another week or so.

We’re not up-to-date on the latest sleep deprivation research, so if any of you know how long we can go without sleep before psychosis sets in, please write.


For more on twilight, here are definitions and explanations. For calculations of each where you live, here is the U.S. Navy Observatory page to do that. You can also see the times and the world clock page.

We exaggerated a bit about filling the garage with grape jelly, but not that much. In the last five days, we’ve served twelve pounds (5.5kg) of grape jelly.

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