Super Bowl Sunday 2012 – For the Birds

February 7, 2012

Sandhill Cranes Scoring a Touchdown

When we first saw them, the Raven was negotiating with the Golden Eagle about the carcass of a Snow Goose upon which the eagle was perched. Too far away to be certain, we supposed that the raven was explaining to the eagle that contributions would be gratefully accepted. The eagle appeared disinterested.

That was the tail end of our annual Super Bowl Sunday birding trip and was one of the highlights. The juvenile Western Meadowlarks added spice and the Black Phoebe and Says Phoebes weren’t bad either. And we saw numbers of Northern Harrier Hawks at work even though it was a Sunday. Northern Harriers lack religion.

We missed, by two days and three miles, the latest Aplomado Falcon visit. But several Kestrels made up for that, hovering like the best of helicopters and swooping down faster than any helicopter. Two Towhees rearranged last autumn’s leaves, White-crowned Sparrows posed, and Snow Geese swirled for no apparent reason. Except for the time the Harrier glided into their territory. That caused political unrest.

Snowing Geese

And 8,400 trumpets in the orchestra of evolution trumpeted. Aldo Leopold was right about Sandhill Cranes. They played several concerts during our sunset/sunrise visits. They go to bed earlier than the Snow Geese and begin their morning commute after the geese. The geese are last in, first out and the Sandhills don’t care. Sandhills aren’t as excitable as Snow Geese and they worry less. If Sandhills are the trumpets of evolution, Snow Geese are the violins and are, accordingly, more high strung.

We wanted to show you a photo of that Raven and Golden Eagle discussion but, as we set up the shot, a cretin who works at the refuge careened into the field in his big white pick-up, scared the eagle and the Raven away and stole the goose carcass for himself, unceremoniously pitching it in the back of the pick-up, leaving us with only back-lit photos of the eagle and raven flying away and leaving both of them without lunch. A strong letter of protest to the refuge will be dispatched. If that man needed the goose for food, we’re not paying him enough; if he dislikes Golden Eagles, he ought to have a desk job. Either way, good manners required that he wait for me to make my photograph before scuttling the negotiations between the eagle and the raven.






Mountain Bluebird

November 7, 2011

The origin of bird names often is obscure. Sometimes it is difficult, if not impossible to discern what Adam was thinking. A “Bananaquit”? A “Lapwing”? How about “Bushtit”? Where did those names come from? The list of obscure bird names stretches across many pages of field guides.

But sometimes a name is perfectly obvious. For instance, “Mountain Bluebird.” The bird is blue and it lives in mountains. According to Kaufman, they, “Hover in midair before dropping to pick up insects from the ground.” One is hovering in this photo. See if you can spot it.

Hovering Mountain Bluebird

Here is a close-up.

On the recent day I was in these mountains, several hovered on the breeze blowing up from the river canyon below the ridge where I stood. I actually thought they might be eating insects that were floating on that breeze, not picking them off the ground, but who am I to argue with Kenn Kaufman who, I am certain, has forgotten more about birds than I will ever know. And they were dropping to the ground, relaunching, and hovering, so they probably were eating insects off the ground; stocking up for winter I imagine. It snowed in those mountains two days later.

Of course, many bird species are named for their habitats. Mountain Bluebirds are not alone in that regard. Cactus Wrens nest in cacti. You’ll find Seaside Sparrows exactly where you’d expect. Ovenbirds are brown and live in ovens.

The Big Year

October 18, 2011

The Big Year is in movie theaters everywhere now. Well, maybe not everywhere. I understand that movies aren’t big in Somalia right now and the little town in New Mexico where I grew up no longer has a movie theater, but aside from minor exceptions like that, the movie is playing everywhere. And why not? It has Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson in it and it’s a major movie about birding.

You read that correctly, a popular, well-funded, star-studded movie about birding. Based on the book by the same title by Mark Obmascik, the movie chronicles the unofficial competition between three men after a non-existent award for the most bird species seen in a single year in North America. Some human interest comedy has been added for the movie, but otherwise, it is a reasonably accurate portrayal of the book.

Of course, as usual in these matters, the book is better. And, if you live in Albuquerque, you can win an autographed copy for free. All you have to do is listen to KHFM (95.5), our local classical radio station and call in when you hear the ad for The Fat Finch. Not only can you win a copy of the book, you can also win a gift certificate for use in the store.

The birds are mostly accurate, even though a few are digital versions of their real-life counterparts and the flip book of birds at the end of the movie, during the credits, are the best reason to sit still until the lights come up. And this is a movie where the jokes are about non-birders instead of birders.

But the best reason to see the movie and to see it on the big screen is to reward all the people involved in it. Here is an attempt by Hollywood to show us something of the wild world and why we need to get out in it from time to time. Here, from the New York Times review of the movie is a sentence I wish I had written:

Birds are evidence of the miraculous and protean work of evolution and, more important, emblems of wildness in an overcivilized world.

It’s good to see a movie about them. And, after you’ve seen it, you’ll want to read the book again, either for the first time or for a re-reading. Then you’ll want to put on a good pair of hiking shoes, grab a pair of binoculars and go see some wildness.


Here are links to two reviews, one from serious birders at Cornell and the one from the New York Times.


PS. We’ve been away awhile and are glad to be back. Thanks for staying with us. This post is the 400th in the blog’s history and we just recently passed 800,000 views. Thanks to all our readers.

Hummingbirds and War

August 9, 2011

Rufous Hummingbird -Photo by Tom Spross. Used with Permission(we hope).

Throughout human history animals have been unwittingly – and probably unwillingly – used as weapons of war. Hannibal crossed the Alps on elephants to attack the Roman Empire; pigs were used to frighten the elephants; mules were used as recently as WWII as military transport; camels are still used in desert regions to this day; since at least the time of the ancient Greeks, dogs have been used to kill opponents, sniff out hidden threats, blow up tanks, and carry messages; monkeys have blown themselves up in the service of mankind’s wars; and, of course, horses have carried people into combat since the invention of stirrups. Nor have sea-dwelling animals escaped warfare duties. Dolphins and sea lions are used as sentries and mine-detectors and the U.S. Navy and probably others research dolphins and whales to improve submarine propulsion and sonar.

Flying animals have not escaped either. In the Spanish Civil War pilots used turkeys to fly fragile supplies to gentle landings; bats have carried small incendiary bombs; and pigeons have carried military messages for centuries.

Hummingbirds had, until now, escaped military service.

But in what is a major feat of engineering, a hummingbird robotic spy-drone exists. It’s a fake hummingbird with a video camera in its throat. Apparently it can stay aloft for as long as ten minutes, allowing it to fly to a target and send video back to troops. It flies, hovers, and lands pretty much like the real thing.

And, based on the YouTube segments, the thing even resembles real hummingbirds.

(Better video is here but you have to sit through a commercial first.)

So, we have a question. The Pentagon has spent $4,000,000 dollars on this bird but the United States is not currently at war with any Western Hemisphere nation which is the only place hummingbirds live. Don’t you suppose a Taliban terrorist in Afghanistan might be suspicious when a bird he’s never seen shows up in his back yard and stares at him?

Perhaps the Pentagon relies on terrorists not being birders?

Aztecs would see this development as perfectly natural: They believed that hummingbirds were the souls of departed Aztec warriors. But we suggest you flee if you ever see a hummingbird drone in your backyard.

Calmly Facing Tribulation

August 1, 2011

Given all the bad news in the world and the dysfunctional U.S. government, we recommend this thirty-second  video of a stoic bird teaching us patience.


June 24, 2011

Larry Glover

The southwest United States is burning up. According to my math the fires in West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado have burned more than 900,000 acres as of this afternoon. The relative humidity outside the room where I write this is three per cent. That’s right, three per cent. (3%)

It is so dry here that I saw a Great-tailed Grackle fly to one of our little circulating fountains yesterday and dip a dead lizard in the water before flying off to eat the lizard. Apparently, even the lizards are too dry to eat without moistening first. (Either that or the grackle was pretending to be a raccoon.) Our chickens stand around their water dishes panting between drinks. Our hummingbird visitors are barely active during the day, it’s so hot and dry.

To paraphrase the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, the prairies slice the big sky at evening and the smoke crusts the sight of the sunsets.

Smoke Encrusted Sunset

And that explains why I’ve been thinking today of a marvelous word: petrichor. (PET-ri-kuhr)It is a noun describing the wonderful smell of dry desert ground right after a rain. Coined by researchers I.J. Bear and R.G. Thomas it combines “petro” (rock) with “ichor” (the fluid that flowed through the veins of the Greek gods.)The science holds that the rain releases oils from vegetation, resulting in the odor. The more romantic explanation is that the dry, sere, parched earth is rejoicing.

I don’t care; I just want to smell it again. So do the birds.


Thanks to Larry Glover of Wild Resiliency for permission to use the photograph of the fire  burning in the Sangre de Cristo mountains outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. Weather Bureau radar confirmed that the smoke plume in that photo was 27,000 feet above the surface or 34,000 feet above sea level.

Who Sees Better?

June 10, 2011

Photo Copyrighted by Linda Rockwell

This photo comes courtesy of our friends Linda Rockwell and Bosque Bill and a rescued Harris Hawk whose eyes are probably a lot better than the expensive Canon lens you see in the photo.

Stumping Bluejays

June 5, 2011

Stellar's Jay

“Animals talk to each other, of course.” So begins Mark Twain’s short story, “What Stumped the Blue Jays.” Jim Baker, a middle-aged miner in the wilds of California told him so. According to Baker, “some animals have only a limited education, and use only very simple words . . . whereas certain other animals have a large vocabulary, a fine command of language and a ready and fluent delivery; consequently these latter talk a great deal; they like it; they are conscious of their talent, and they enjoy ‘showing off.’” Baker, after a lifetime of observation of animals talking, decided the Blue Jay was the best talker of all.

Before telling Twain “a perfectly true fact” about a particular Blue Jay, Baker had this to say about all Blue Jays:

“There’s more to a bluejay than any other creature. He has got more moods, and more different kinds of feelings than other creatures; and, mind you, whatever a bluejay feels, he can put into language. And no commonplace language, either, but rattling, out-and-out book-talk – and bristling with metaphor, too – just bristling! And as for command of language – why you never see a bluejay get stuck for a word. No man ever did. They just boil out of him! And another thing: I’ve noticed a good deal, and there’s no bird, or cow, or anything that uses as good grammar as a bluejay. You may say a cat uses good grammar. Well, a cat does – but you let a cat get excited once; you let a cat get to pulling fur with another cat on a shed, nights, and you’ll hear grammar that will give you the lockjaw. Ignorant people think it’s the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain’t so; it’s the sickening grammar they use. Now I’ve never heard a jay use bad grammar but very seldom; and when they do, they are as ashamed as human; they shut right down and leave.”

Blue Jay Photo Courtesy of Ken Thomas

The perfectly true fact that Baker had to tell Twain was about the Blue Jay that discovered a knot-hole on the roof of an old deserted cabin and started dropping acorns down that hole thinking he could fill it up. After a day of trying the jay said to himself, “Well, I never struck no such hole as this before; I’m of the opinion it’s a totally new kind of a hole.” About five thousand jays come to see this hole and, eventually, one discovers the open door to the deserted cabin and sees the acorns spread all over the floor and all the jays have a good laugh.

“You may call a jay a bird. Well, so he is, in a measure – because he’s got feathers on him, and don’t belong to no church, perhaps; but otherwise he is just as much a human as you be. And I’ll tell you for why. A jay’s gifts, and instincts, and feelings, and interests, cover the whole ground. A jay hasn’t got any more principle than a Congressman. A jay will lie, a jay will steal, a jay will deceive, a jay will betray; and four times out of five, a jay will go back on his solemnest promise. . . Now, on top of all this, there’s another thing; a jay can out-swear any gentleman in the mines. . . And there’s yet another thing; in the one little particular of scolding – just good, clean, out-and-out scolding – a bluejay can lay over anything, human or divine.”

After listening to that cousin of a Blue Jay at the top of this post, I believe that Stellar’s Jays are at least a close second to regular Blue Jays.


The Raptor Visit

May 24, 2011

Psst. You still here? We understand that The Raptor was a disappointment for many but one came to our house.

Nothing much happened though. It watched the bird feeder below it for a while and then it left.

The Raptor

May 18, 2011

From news accounts we see that certain Christians believe something called “The Raptor” is coming this Saturday, so we thought we had better put up a photo of one.

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