Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Serendipity and plain old luck

Lucky moonshot, digiscoped through the Meade Condor with my Nikon Coolpix 4800. Why lucky, you ask? Take a look at my other digiscoped photos; this almost-crystal-clear one has GOT to be luck!

The first definition you'll find on for the word "serendipity" is "an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident." I knew that the word usually referred to a pleasant discovery made by accident, but I'd never thought about it as an "aptitude," as though certain people have a knack for making these discoveries. Interesting. Can one really have a gift for making lucky discoveries? Or is it that some people are gifted at looking at normal things and seeing in them something that becomes a great discovery? What was the difference between the guy who saw cockleburrs and thought "velcro!" and the millions of other people who saw them and just thought, "dangit! that's gonna run my hose!"?

Serendipity is rare in my life; normally, I'm just pretty lucky, but it doesn't usually lead to any life-changing discoveries like Velcro or saccharine or any of the other storied examples of serendipity. Lately, however, I've experienced some pretty neat things, and I'll you decide whether they're serendipity or luck.

Earlier today, I was surfing through some new birding blogs when I read an entry about the song of the Eastern towhee, usually rendered as "drink your tea." (I'd love to post the link to this blog/post, but I just can't remember where I read it. Sorry!) At any rate, I was going to an appointment this afternoon at an office that is surrounded by woods. After the appointment, I searched for an indigo bunting that I'd been told about in the woods when, to my amazement, I heard it: "drink-your-teeeeeeea!" I saw a little movement in a low bush and there he was: a male Eastern towhee--a lifer! I didn't have my camera ready, but I saw him there, not five feet away. Wow! If I hadn't read about "drink your tea" this afternoon, there's just no way I'd have been able to ID that song and know to look for that towhee.

Yesterday, I read on the local birding listserv that a blue grosbeak had been seen near my house, in an area I'd never really explored. I drove over there this evening, hoping to see the grosbeak--as though it would be the only bird in the area or something. Anyway, I didn't see the grosbeak, but I DID get lucky. First, I saw an orchard oriole, my second lifer of the day. I sort-of got a photo, though it's ridiculously bad:

He and his mate were intent on hiding in the thick foliage of this tree, but I got some decent looks at them, and I'm confident--orchard oriole!

Next, I saw this bird which I can't ID:

I thought it might be some sort of flycatcher, but they're small. What is this bird? UPDATE--I remembered that he DID make a sound--it sounded like someone clacking away at the keys on a manual typewriter. Help! Tell me it's something cool, though--not a mockingbird or something lame like that....

Then I saw a bird that I've debated with myself about life-listing because I'd only ever gotten one quick-glance-had-to-be-one-of-those sightings last summer: the brown thrasher. After today I can list him with confidence, and I even got photos!


I also saw some cedar waxwings--such beautiful birds, and my nemesis for oh-so-long until I moved up here and saw one a couple of years ago:

So maybe luck's been a lady to me lately, sending me to an area rich with birds that I'd never have discovered had I not gone to see a blue grosbeak. I suppose that living in such a beautiful area that's blessed by so many different species of birds is lucky. Or maybe just living on earth is pure luck in itself.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Tribute to Post #150 & a visit from the SC Birding Club

I realized after I'd read my previous post the day after I wrote it that I'd forgotten to honor the fact that it was my 150th post to beginningtobird. I'd mentioned in the entry title but then got so wrapped up in my pileated sighting that I just plain forgot to celebrate. Woo-hoo!

Tonight, Kat and I hosted a gathering of several members of the State College Birding Club along with the owners of the marsh behind my house. Greg and Mary Kay Williams own the marsh and Cooke Tavern Bed and Breakfast. They're great people who actually created this marsh from a horse pasture. They removed the "tile drains" (not sure what those are but they apparently drained off the natural water on the property) and worked with several local, state, and national organizations to develop the wetland. They've lived here for 17 years, and their work--this marsh--was the deciding factor in our decision to buy this house. Mary Kay was glad to hear about our love of the marsh, as most of our other neighbors have called it "a mosquito pit." Whatever. This place rocks.

So some people from the birding club came out as well to look for sora, Virginia rail, and American bittern. We'd hoped for the great egrets, but Mary Kay says she thinks they left. It's been a while since I'd seen them, but I was hoping they were just nesting. Oh well. Saw some great heron tracks, so I know they're still around. We saw rails and sora, who were very stirred up by one member's BirdPod. They walked right up to us, gathered in a group on Neighbor Ed's fenceline looking into the marsh. One began an energetic territory protection display so we moved on.

The bitterns must be nesting, maybe, because they didn't respond to the BirdPod, but I've seen them lately and feel sure they're still around. We stopped trying after just a bit to avoid irritating them.

All in all, we didn't see too many birds, but it was a beautiful evening and it was very exciting to have real bird clubbers hanging out here!

The high point of the night for me occurred once everyone had arrived and we were ready to hit the marsh. Greg and Mary Kay asked if Kat was coming along with us (she had been sitting out in the backyard with me, discussing the details of her day, when everyone arrived). The look on her face was priceless, and in her mental voice (which is too high for most humans, except for me, to hear), she cried, "Oh my god, I'm in birding hell!" But all that came out in the common human ear's hearing range was "Oh, no thanks!" She even managed a rather forced smile!

After everyone left, she told me that she felt like Non-Birding Bill must feel all the time. Gotta love her; she sticks to her "birds are creepy" guns even in the presence of hard-core birders. She's my rock!

I warned her I'd have to blog about this incident, and she just kept repeating "I was in birding hell" and shaking her head, shell-shocked. She says she can tell when she's about to enter birding hell with me when I'm talking with someone else in some random situation when, out of the blue, someone (other than me) will use "birding" as a verb (as opposed to "bird-watching"). That's when I hear her mental voice, like a tiny banshee, wailing somewhere far away. Those moments are priceless. I'm in birding heaven, she's in birding hell.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Post #150--and a pileated!

This morning when I got in the car to wait for Kat, I happened to look over at Neighbor Ed's front yard and saw a pileated woodpecker!

I was so freaked out that I dared not get any closer than our driveway, so these are pretty fuzzy--but it's definitely a pileated!

This is a true lifebird for me, in that I've wanted to see one of these since I was a little kid watching Woody Woodpecker and I found out somewhere that he was modeled after a pileated. Wow.

Kat couldn't believe how huge he was, like a big crow or larger, pecking at the base of an old stump. I wish I could've stayed and watched him all day long, but Kat had to get to school and I had to go to work.

Wow. I'm still all freaked out. What an amazing bird.

On a sidenote: Since this new "autosaving of drafts" thing, I'm unable to view a preview of my posts. I click on the Preview Since I've never been able to get a full menu at the top of the post window (all I get are the icons for spellcheck, for adding photos, and for Preview since I switched to Macintosh and Apple's Safari browser), I can only see the HTML view while composing. So without a preview, I'm just guessing how things look until I post them. Grr... Need to get a different browser but downloading them takes a million years with dial-up. Oy vey.

Anyway--I saw a pileated!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Saturday night (moon) fever

I was outside moving the sprinkler around the veggie garden when I looked up and saw this:

I ran inside and grabbed my scope; there's nothing like those times when the moon and a planet--in this case Venus--appear to rise beside one another in the night sky.

These are the best photos I got, both digiscoping through the Mead Condor, now atop the new Slik 540Q-II tripod with microfluid head, and with the camera on zoom. I tried several camera modes while digiscoping--regular, night landscape, macro, and infinity. Sadly, I didn't get the focused view through the camera that I saw through the scope with my eye. The scope performed beautifully, but I think the camera might've had difficulty with the low light.

I did a little reading about the phenomenon of "earthshine," which occurs when you can see the entire moon in a shadowy blue along with the lit part. I absolutely love it when the moon looks like this, and I was thrilled to photograph it.

According to, Leonardo da Vinci is the first person to have recognized this phenomenon. Beautiful. The view through the scope was incredible, too--I saw all the features on the bottom of the crescent moon.

Wildflowers on a beautiful morning

The following wildflower ID's courtesy of Roger Tory Peterson's Peterson's First Guides: Wildflowers.


Dame's rocket--thought it was a phlox, but it only has four petals

Common blue violet

Common strawberry

Daisy fleabane

Wild parsnip or Golden Alexander? I can't tell.

Is this a tiger swallowtail?

Wild columbine

Common buttercup

Mystery flower--anyone?

With apologies to Alice Walker, in my mind, cows make a landscape more beautiful.

Eastern bluebird--I was too slow to snap her while she was feeding her babies, then she flew up to the wire. I waited, but she was more patient than I, and I figured she might be too shy to feed them with me watching so I drove on.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Home again, home again, jiggedy jig

Watch this space--for yummy pears!

After my amazing two days birding in the PA oil region, I’m home. It’s a strikingly sunny day, with a cool breeze making the leaves dance and the grass sway in waves. So much happened while I was away, it seems. The pear, tamarack, and lilac came into full feather:

The lawn turned from a yellow-spotted dandelion field to a white-puff-filled seed factory:

The garden seeds awoke and found the sun:
Baby spinach:
Tiny cilantro:
Sunflowers for the birds:
Green leaf lettuce:

Green beans:
The morning glories that will camouflage the fence around the veggie garden:

But many things remain the same. I was awakened by the noise of the raptors -- the cats -- jumping to the window to watch the birds, chasing each other up and down the stairs, and begging for their breakfast at 6:30a.m. By the oh-ka-LEEEEE and the crazy sora’s call on the marsh. By Mr. Cardinal, demanding I fill the feeders. By the downy, complaining about how the grackles and red-wing blackbirds ate all his suet. By Niblet running and jumping around, bumping and chinning my ankles as I scoop his pellets and fill his hay manger for breakfast.

Most important of all, though, Kat is beside me, asking for her morning coffee and snuggle. I’m truly home again.

The Oil Region (Warbler/Oriole/insert any bird species here) Birding Festival

This weekend will go down in history as the two most amazing days in my birding life. How can I possible tell you all that happened, describe each beauty-filled moment, recount the singular thrills of a morning birding with a true naturalist and birder? I guess I’ll tell it by the day and try to include everything relevant. Here's the story of my time at the Oil Region First Annual Birding Festival.

I left for the Oil Fest around 6 p.m., after discovering that the tripod people had again sent me only a head and no tripod. For the second time. No matter, I told Kat. I have Joe Spla’s camera and lenses; I’ll be fine. Besides, the most important thing is to see the birds; pics are secondary.

I’d have to remind myself of this mantra later. Many times.

The drive to Titusville, PA, was breathtaking. I had a CD that Hillel had given me--Dan Gibson’s Appalachian Mountain Suite. The soothing music and background of bird songs and calls proved the perfect mood-setter for a drive through the Pennsylvania mountains, valleys, and forests to a birding festival, with the setting sun painting everything gold. Thanks, Hillel!

I arrived at the Cross Creek Resort near Titusville, home base for the festival, around 8:30p.m. I’d missed the “Flock and Mingle” with Julie Zickefoose, but no matter; I’d see her in the morning for the five-hour bird walk through Oil Creek State Park. The festival’s coordinator was kind enough to help me secure a room at the resort, and I went to settle in. Of course I was too excited to sleep, but I finally nodded off while watching a CSI rerun. I’m sure they cracked the case.

The alarm woke me at 5a.m.--ugh. I showered and dressed in my prearranged outfit, loaded my gear, and headed for the park. On the way, I had to maneuver around a huge porcupine on the park road; life mammal! A good omen.

I said “blog!” to Zick as she approached and like pen pals meeting for the first time, we immediately knew a bit of each other’s story and were able to talk with ease. I prepped my gear in the cold pre-dawn light (shorts and t-shirt were inadequate cover for this chilly morning), and we began our walk.

I’d feared I might tire from a five-hour walk, but in the end we only walked about 200 yards at both sites we visited. The warblers were everywhere, and they came to us; all we had to was listen and look, as Julie ID’d species after species just by its song. My peak moments--besides the incredible number of birds we saw:
--I ID’d a Northern Flicker in the near-darkness, and Zick complimented my good old Leupold binocs.
--We saw a gorgeous little waterfall, though the darkness made my photo a bit motion-blurred:

--I was first to spot the wood thrush up in a tree so Zick could show the rest and get the scope on it. What a beautiful song! It's like the Janis Joplin of birds, somehow able to produce chords instead of single notes.
--The other birders were great, a mix of beginners and more experienced birders, so we were able to help one another.
--Zick showed me a red admiral butterfly, a moment that would make it into her keynote speech that night after dinner.
-- I didn’t get poison ivy!

Along the way, Joe Spla’s camera had a dead-battery meltdown, I didn’t even try to digiscope or digibinoc, and I nearly froze to death. Still--it was by far the best day of my life that didn’t involve Kat. Julie said that’s what she liked to hear. True to form, Zick pointed out not only birds but butterflies, plants, and flowers, identifying and telling the us the reason for their presence. The Science Chimp was in her element, and she had an attentive audience to appreciate her magic.

Julie on the trail:


Speedwell, a beautiful but invasive garden escapee:

Ajuga everywhere, another escapee from a garden:

A beautiful maroon trillium:

Now to the list of birds; it was interesting how few common birds we saw. Maybe that’s because Julie took care to ID the biggies for us, most of which were lifers (indicated by an L) for me.

Canada goose
Wood duck (L)
Common merganser (L)
Red-breasted merganser
Turkey vulture
Red-tailed hawk
Mourning dove
Yellow-billed Cuckoo (L)
Downy woodpecker
Least flycatcher (L)
Pileated woodpecker -- heard (L)
Yellow-throated vireo (L)
Warbling vireo (L)
Red-eyed vireo (L)
American crow
Tree swallow
Northern rough-winged swallow (L)
Blue-gray gnatcatcher (L)
Veery (L)
Wood thrush (L)
Gray catbird
Blue-winged warbler (L)
Tennessee warbler (L)
Northern parula (L)
Yellow warbler (L)
Magnolia warbler -- heard (L)
Yellow-rumped warbler (L)
Bay-breasted warbler (L)
Blackpoll warbler (L)
Cerulean warbler (L)
American redstart (L)
Northern waterthrush -- heard (L)
Common yellowthroat (L)
Canada warbler (L)
Scarlet tanager -- only a glimpse but I saw him! (L)
Northern cardinal
Rose-breasted grosbeak
Chipping sparrow
Swamp sparrow -- heard
Red-winged blackbird
Baltimore oriole
American goldfinch

23 lifebirds in five hours. Needless to say, we did the Life Bird Wiggle® at the end of our walk; Julie took a photo. One of the birders was kind enough to get a shot of me (and my hat-hair) with Zick:

What a morning! I didn’t get many photos, but here are a few more from the walk:
There’s a Canada warbler in here, I swear--it's that yellow blob in the center!

Oil Creek, 7:48a.m.:

The view from the road:

Rose-breasted grosbeak at the feeder by the ranger station:

Uh... a warbler of some sort; I can't remember what this was, and the photo's too grainy for ID:

A little froggy:

At lunch, which Julie was kind enough to let me tag along to, with some of Julie's friends who were attending the festival, we all agreed that they need to change the name of this bird festival for next year. Insert a sexy bird in there--or any bird!--and you'll attract more people! After discussing the merits and >dangers of cheese, we ended our lunch and I attended two of the lecture sessions. The first was “Introduction to Warblers” with Bob Mulvihill, the Field Ornithology Projects Coordinator at the Powdermill Avian Research Center. His important point was that most of the confusion surrounding the ID of warblers results from trying to ID females, not from any difficulty telling male warblers apart. He showed stunning photos taken during banding sessions, so the detail was amazing. What a great job that must be -- spending your days (and nights, it turns out!) studying birds, learning their habits and life cycles, documenting every phase, every molt, every bird. Wow.

Next, I heard Dr. John Karian talk about nature photography and the great photo ops in the Oil Region. He showed some beautiful images he’d taken and talked about how he got them: getting up and into position well before sunrise, getting his gear ready to snap, and then just waiting for the moments to happen. Another amazing job to have, though the getting up early and the patience are not really my strong suits.... He talked about some technical aspects of photography, but mainly about his experiences capturing these images. Great stuff.

By this point, I’d been up for ten hours, hadn’t had any coffee, and was feeling pretty rough. Still, I wanted to get some photos, so I decided to go out and get new batteries and more film for Joe Spla’s camera then head back to the park. I made it to the batteries and film, then went back to the hotel room, where I realized I was just too exhausted and needed a nap. Thank goodness I’d gone ahead and booked a second night at the resort, instead of just the one I’d planned on.

I woke up late but made it to the banquet in time to eat and have some coffee before Julie began her presentation. And what a presentation--it was like watching her blog come to life. Many times she almost brought me to tears, and many times I laughed out loud. The whole time, though, I thought about life and nature from her point of view as well as my own. She read from her book, told stories of her childhood and how and why she became an artist and an observer of nature, and showed photos of many of her artworks. She even managed to sneak in some Chet Baker pics--sweet! We laughed about that after her talk, and she autographed a book for me and one for my mom. It’ll make a nice Mother’s Day present for my mom, a lover of nature and birds.

I went to bed after the dinner, but the banging headache I’d been fighting since Thursday decided to launch a major offensive. I finally got to sleep about 4a.m., woke up around noon, checked out of the resort, and started for home. I’m a tired but incredibly happy birder, enriched not just by my first bird festival but by the gift of Julie’s presence there.