Saturday, February 6, 2016

River of Birds in the Sky

Saturday, February 6, 2016

European turtle-doves are shot by the thousands annually in Greece.
Did you know that an estimated 20 million birds are killed each year while migrating along the Mediterranean-Black Sea flyway? These birds are not dying of natural causes. They are shot, trapped, netted, and captured by glue smeared onto branches. This devastating "harvest" of wild birds is done by people in the name of tradition. Birds are shot for sport. They are netted and lured into traps for local markets where they are sold as food considered by some to be a delicacy.
A European bee-eater trapped in a net.
Black kites in migration.

An illegal shooting blind in Greece. ©Hellenic Ornithological Society.

I'm sure you're as horrified as I am to learn this. But you may also be thinking "Those people way over there in the Mediterranean region are nuts! That would never happen here in the U.S!"

The Mediterranean flyway connects Eurasia, the Middle East, and Africa. ©BirdLife International

And, you'd be wrong.

Humans have always had a love-hate relationship with birds—especially with birds that occur is such large concentrations that there seems to be a never-ending supply. Think passenger pigeon. What was once the most numerous species on the planet was reduced—from billions to none—in the span of a single human generation.
Dead hawks shot along the Kittatinny Ridge near Hawk Mountain. ©Hawk Mountain Sanctuary
Men with shotguns used to line the Kittatinny Ridge in eastern Pennsylvania just to shoot the passing hawks in the fall. They'd shoot so many of these "vermin" that they'd pose proudly standing next to a pile of carcasses. It used to happen in Cape May, too, during fall migration. And elsewhere, I'm sure. Anywhere there were large concentrations of birds you'd have somebody there with guns, having themselves a good old time.

Those days are gone now, here in North America. But they still are alive and well in countries such as Cyprus, Greece, Malta, and even in France and Italy, where this repulsive tradition continues. I'm not talking about legitimate hunting here. I'm talking about people shooting hawks and storks and cranes and cuckoos and lapwings and nightjars—simply for the heck of it. It's illegal, yet local authorities often turn a blind eye or cite their lack of jurisdiction on private property.
White-eared bulbul.

There have been a number of campaigns against this illegal killing. One I've recently become involved in was started by my friends Jonathan Meyrav and Dan Alon of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), with assistance from BirdLife International. 

Israel sits at the bottleneck of the migration route between Eurasia and Africa, which makes it a world-class birding hotspot. And while none of the shooting or trapping happens in Israel, it does in many of the other countries along the flyway.

Jonathan and his colleagues at SPNI came up with the idea of a birding competition during spring migration in Eilat, Israel's southernmost city. They called it Champions of the Flyway and invited teams from all over the world to come to compete for a number of prize categories. You can learn all about the Champions of the Flyway here on the event website.
Teams scouting for the 2014 Champions race.

Most importantly, the Champions event was designed to raise money through online donations and corporate sponsorship, all of which goes to a single BirdLife partner along the flyway each year for use in the battle against the illegal killing of wild birds. In 2014, the money went to the Bird Conservation Georgia in the former Soviet republic. In 2015, the cause was BirdLife Cyprus. And in 2016, it's the BirdLife partner in Greece, the Hellenic Ornithological Society.

I took a team over to the inaugural Champions event in Eilat in 2014 and had a great time. Our team, the Way-off Coursers, raised more than $3,000 for the conservation fund.
The BWD Champions Team in 2014: George Armistead, Michael O'Brien, yours truly, and Ben Lizdas (behind the camera).
 I missed the 2015 event. But when my good friend Jonathan Meyrav asked me to write a song for this year's Champions of the Flyway, I couldn't say no.

After a lot of writing and a bit of cogitating, a song began to take shape. The result is "River of Birds in the Sky," an  anthem for the birds and for their Champions. I recorded the song with my band, The Rain Crows, and with the help of some special birder-musician friends—in fact everyone who helped record the song is a birder! I am incredibly pleased with the song and the video we put together to accompany it. Here's the video and song.

So the Way-off Coursers are back, and we're truly honored and excited about participating in this year's Champions of the Flyway competition. We've decided to do a Big Sit in Eilat's famous birdwatching park. We're going to conserve resources (ours included) and let the birds come to us.

If you'd like to help us reach our goal to raise $5,000 to help stop illegal killing along the Mediterranean flyway, please visit our team page on the Champions website. 

You can watch the video and listen to the song for free right here. Or, on the Bird Watcher's Digest website, you can purchase an mp3 download of "River of Birds in the Sky" for just 99 cents. Every penny we raise will go directly to the Champions conservation fund. This year's Champions conservation cause is aimed at stopping the illegal killing of birds in Greece, working with the BirdLife partner there, the Hellenic Ornithological Society.

You can follow along during our Big Sit on Twitter (@billofthebirds, @bwdmag, @flywaychampions, #COTF2016, #riverofbirds) and Facebook. We'll appreciate any sharing you can do and any contribution you can make. 

After all, we're all in it to help the birds.

Peace, love, and a river of birds in the sky.


Saturday, January 30, 2016

Winter Day Doings

Saturday, January 30, 2016
Today was unseasonably warm, even in this warmest of winters on record. Temps were projected to hit the high-60s in mid-afternoon, so I planned accordingly and started in on the mountain of laundry from my recent travels. What a gift to be able to hang out laundry on a sunny winter day.

Between the breeze, low humidity, and the warm sun, my three loads of clean clothes were dry in less than an hour. Now if they'd just learn to put themselves away...

The warm, sunny morning reminded me of spring, which reminded me of baseball, which reminded me of an annual pilgrimage I make each spring with my daughter Phoebe. We go to Florida to see our beloved Pittsburgh Pirates in spring training in Bradenton, Florida. Phoebe goes to college in Maine, so, when her spring break coincides with spring training games in Florida, we pinkie-swear to each other that we're going. This year we're taking Phoebe's "little" brother Liam (who at six feet tall now towers over Phoebe). Liam wants to go to spring training because Phoebe will be there. Not so much because he's a baseball fanatic on the level of his sister and his dad. That's OK. We'll have a good time. I booked the tickets, which for me is a true sign of spring.

We've been going to Pirates' games for years now.

After noon passed and the day just kept getting more and more beautiful I could not stay inside any longer, so I suited up for a hike.

We had two feet of dry, powdery snow fall a bit more than a week ago. Lots of it still lingers in the places where the direct sun doesn't fall. The snow outside the back door was strewn with birch seeds, broken apart from their tiny-cigar-shaped clusters by wind and birds I assume. It looked like an overzealous waiter had run around the yard with a pepper grinder.

Pepper snow.

Out the orchard path I went, headed straight West as if commanded, though I am no longer a "young man." Out in the orchard are some places I like to visit. The skeletal remnants of our last sweat lodge, made from saplings and grapevines and the attendant fire circle are there. Some squat poplar logs, used for seats (too punky to burn) and a pile of future bonfire wood are there, too.

Off to the left is the spot where my dad is buried. He died five years ago this week and I still miss him so much. I like to come out here and sit on the bench near his grave and talk to him about what's going on. These places are touchstones on my renewal loop which I try to walk as often as possible.

Squatch prints.

The sudden warm temps and re-freezing night had done amazing things to the tracks of deer—rendering them the size of sasquatch prints. Or, as the ultra-hick reality show guys from West Virginia, would say, "Them's the prints of the Ahhiya grassman!"

It's hard not to yank out the phone to take a photo every 30 seconds/30 steps when the landscape is half covered in snow and drowning in sunlight. I must remind myself to be in the moment and let the phone stay put in the pocket. 

The nuthatches and titmice were tuning up. I could see pair of them flitting through the sumac and honeysuckle tangles. Pileated woodpecker drum circles let their presence be known from deep in the woods. It's the leading edge of spring. Won't be long now before the nesting season begins. I scanned the patches of grass for woodcock chalk—droppings left behind by a foraging timberdoodle.

Might be last year's nest, but all the boxes showed signs of use by roosting birds.

The sky sang a spring song too, with high wispy clouds. I could tell, however, that without a gray blanket of clouds above, tonight would be quite chilly.

I've got a busy slate of travel coming up over the next few months, so it was sweet to reconnect with these acres we call home by walking along its slushy, slippery paths. o smell of spring on the air quite yet. When that happens, I know that we've chased winter for good for another loop around the sun.

What a great day. If all winter days were like this, I bet fewer people would get the winter blues and blahs.

Thanks for coming along. Let's do it again.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

New Podcast Episode: "Backyard Rarity, Part One"

Tuesday, December 29, 2015
Western flycatcher. ©Bill Thompson III
On Sunday, December 13, just after noon, I was dumping a bucket of vegetable scraps on our compost pile next to our garage when a small, weird-looking, greenish bird flitted up from the brushy thicket in front of me. It was a small flycatcher, like an Acadian flycatcher, but the field marks didn't fit. In fact, the more I looked at this bird, just 10 feet away (naked eye—I wasn't wearing binocs) the more I realized that it was something completely different.

It had a rounded crest at the back of the head. It had an oblong-shaped, bright white eyering. It had buffy wingbars. It's breast and belly were a yellowish-green. It was flicking its wings and jetting its tail. Its large-looking bill had a pale lower mandible. And it was in southeastern Ohio in mid-December, when most North American flycatchers should be somewhere in the tropics.

The bird moved and I bolted inside for binocs, a camera, and Julie. We raced back out and, after a few panicked moments, re-found the bird. After some wild conjectures, we finally came to the conclusion that this was an Empidonax flycatcher. After we eliminated all the eastern Empids, we moved on to the western ones and BAM! Arrived at the western flycatcher complex, a single species that was split in 1989 into two distinct species: Pacific-slope flycatcher and cordilleran flycatcher.

And that's when the fun really began. The latest episode of my This Birding Life podcast, "Backyard Rarity, Part One," covers the experience of finding, identifying, and sharing of this rare bird. Give it a listen for free at Podcast Central, or on the iTunes podcast channel.

 This Birding Life is hosted by Bird Watcher's Digest and sponsored by Carl Zeiss Sports Optics and Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Adventures.