Saturday, January 30, 2010

Some of my favorite birds

People, kids mostly, always want to know about the superlatives in the bird world.  Which one is faster?  Which one is the biggest?  Which one would win in a battle?  Which one is your favorite?  I can do a pretty good job with all but the last one.  It might even be fun.

Little Bobby:  "If a Great horned owl and a Bald Eagle had a battle, who would win?"

Stephen: "Well, it depends on the battlefield.  Are we talking about in a muddy field by a pond during the day or the pine woods at dusk?  I think the woods at dusk is a better scene for a battle."

Little Bobby: "What is dusk?"

At any rate, you see how it works.  Fun.  That was a made up conversation.

The last of the questions is one I hate to answer and most often dodge nimbly (as nimbly  is the only way I roll). But there are a few that I really like.  Several of those popped into the picture this week and fit quite well into the theme of my blog.  So, i'll talk a bit about them and the people and places involved.

In the vain of the last post, this one involves my day off.  I decided to take advantage of the free "Tourist in Your Own Town" passes since the Center has been filled with participants and I had yet to visit one attraction.  Emily and I took off Wednesday morning for Charlestowne Landing.  I had not visited since the renovations, so I was excited.  Emily had one visit under her belt, and every detail was fresh.  Nice to have a guide.

We headed toward the animal forest preparing to see, lions (cougars), tigers (bobcats) and of course bears.  Oh my, the excitement was palpable.  On the way, I spotted a bird in a tree in the old cemetery.  It was only 20 feet away, but since it wasn't a raptor, I misidentified it initially.  I thought it was a tufted titmouse (Baeolophus = having a small crest bicolor = you can figure this one out, right?).  Neat birds.  I was wrong.  I looked through my binoculars at the solitary bird and realized it was one of my all time favorites, back from the south.  As I put the binoculars down and looked at the bigger picture, I realized he was not alone at all.  A total of 11 cedar waxwings (Bombycilla = silk tail cedorum = they like to eat cedar pine cones) sat peeping quietly in the tree.  Not many birds have the elegance of these little fellas.  Your best suit can't touch the grey on these birds.  Then add the yellow tip on the tail and the Makers' Mark bottle drip on the wing as some of the best flair in the business and you have quite a handsome package.  I go out of my way to experience large numbers of these birds.  Fortunately, they are typically all over the Center in spring and if they are not here, they will likely be between the old College of Charleston library and Maybank hall feasting on holly berries while zipping amongst the college kids.  Nothing like it.

While the waxwings have not arrived on the Center's campus yet, we have been swamped with visitors from the TIYOT pass program this month.  It has been nice to have big crowds for the demonstrations and tours and I have had several nice conversations with guests about birds.  On Thursday afternoon, I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of a gentleman named Rusty Denman.  I noticed him during the demonstration because he had on a sweet hat (he had some good questions too, but the hat was sweet!)  Mr. Denman was highly complementary of the work we were doing and was genuinely excited about what we are doing.  As I was heading back to the owl wood, he asked me where I was going to be in a few minutes and told me that he had something for me in his car.

Stephen:  "I'm excited already" not knowing whether it was a box of dirty socks or a sock full of diamonds.

Rusty: "Oh buddy, you should be!" 

A couple of minutes later, a smiling Rusty arrived in the owl wood carrying a paper Piggly Wiggle bag.  He pulled out a loaf of bread.  OK, not a sock full of diamonds, but homemade bread is pretty nice too.  It smelled awesome.  His wife makes it, labels it and gives it away.  Under the bread was a Styrofoam food contained labeled "Rusty's Famous Barbecue Chicken" in blue sharpie pen.  He told me about the process.  Pressure, seasoning, more seasoning, grill.  Then there was the sauce.  It looked and smelled great, but it is hard to impress with barbecue sauce.  And there was the little issue of taking random car food from a relative stranger.  Who carries boxes of chicken and loaves of bread in their trunk and gives them to strangers?  

I should mention that the domestic chicken (Gallus domesticus) is pretty high on my list of favorite birds.  They make eggs, which are nice.  They also taste great in a large number of recipes.  I know that the poultry industry leaves a lot to be desired in the the eyes of many (including myself), but for the sake of this blog, think "tasty!"

It will be difficult to describe effectively just how tasty it was.  Monty and I devoured the box of chicken and sopped up the sauce with the bread.  Quite literally, the best BBQ chicken I have ever tasted.  As a musician, I have had every caterer's attempt and while some are really good, none are in the same league.  Thanks Rusty and "Mrs. Rusty".  If I had skills like that. I would carry bags of it everywhere I went.  Now that we're not strangers, I hope that I have many more opportunities to take food from Rusty!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Can't live on birds alone

Sometimes strange schedules make for days off in the middle of the week.  I have today and tomorrow off as my "weekend" this week, so I thought I would take advantage of nap time to mention a couple of my new favorite songs. I forget sometimes how energizing new music can be.  If you like music, you'll probably get hooked on
one or both of these.

"Ruby" - The Dave Rawlings Machine -,  I can't get this song out of my head.  I have listened to Dave for years as the archtop wielding sideman of his wife and songwriting cohort Gillian Welch.  This is from his solo project.  The band is Dave, Gillian and the guys from Old Crow Medicine Show.  Great hook, cool harmonies, groovy pickin'.  Nothing but wood, strings, picks, bows and voices. No fancy tricks.  Music.

"The Gardner" - The Tallest man on Earth-  This Scandinavian dude has a style and singing voice that appeals to me.  I first saw him on the NPR series Tiny Desk Concert.  There are tons of other great acts on there as well.  From Classical to Hip Hop.  At any rate the tall guy really has soul.  His guitar playing works with his voice and poetry to produce something that I enjoy and think you should check out if you like music.  You know, wood, strings, picks, voices.  Music.  Plus, the space in which this video is filmed is pretty awesome.  Must find out where it is before my next visit to the City.

I can't quit singing them in my head and repeating them on the i-pod.  Fortunately, I think Lindsay and Emily like them too.  

Monday, January 25, 2010

Theme Song

An old friend posted an audio response to my blog on Facebook.  I think it is an appropriate theme song for my blog. I Like Birds

Thanks Zach.

Wet, wet, wet, wet

This morning it is wet.  The road is wet, the field is wet, the birds are wet and my feet are wet.  While it is a minor annoyance, the water has made for an interesting morning of birds.  First, two mourning doves (Zenaida macroura named for the wife of French Prince and ornithologist Charles Lucien Jules Laurent Bonaparte, Princess Zanaide as well as their uncommonly long "macro" tail  "oura") found themselves trapped in the weathering area (an area enclosed by a mesh net meant to keep birds out where we tether our trained birds during the day).  Not a good place for "raptor food" to be trapped.  Before I could get the doors open, they found their way to freedom.  I suppose they were looking for seeds flushed out by the rain.  Or they were really depressed and contemplating ending it all.  The former is much more likely.

I also saw one of my favorite bird phenomena.  A large flock of red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius = belonging to a flock phoenicus = dull scarlet color) and boat-tailed grackles (Quiscalis major) were feeding in the pond that was once our flying field.  Perhaps pond is the wrong word as the deepest spot is probably 3 inches deep, but puddle doesn't have the same impact.  As the flock moved across the field in search of food, it folded over itself from back to front.  It looked like a wave breaking in the surf.  Birds in the rear flew over the rest of the flock to land in the front.  Such a fluid motion from hundreds of individual birds was incredible.  Now I need a video camera as well.  

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Cosmic Timing

So here's a funny story about people and birds.

For the last 10 years, the Center has had a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) known as 2051.  This pertains to the place in which the bird was admitted into our medical facility (this one was the 2051 of nearly 5000).  Since there is little difference between the males and females in most raptors, determining sex can be a challenge.  Females are larger than males in most cases (reverse sexual size dimorphism) and obviously females lay eggs, but other than that there is no consistent external difference.

So, earlier this week, an argument blossomed between the education staff.  To be honest, it was me against them.  They argued that the bird was a female.  I argued male.  Their argument was supported by size.  My argument was supported by the fact that the bird had made "nest scrapes" in the corners of its enclosure, a job typically reserved for the males.  I was pretty sure I was right.  I am sure you can see where this might be heading.

So, at dinner (some cosmic pizza at Mellow Mushroom) prior to our monthly volunteer staff meeting, things escalated to include members of our clinic staff.  It was suggested that we all chip in to have a blood test done to settle the disagreement.  You see, the test costs $25 and if we don't "need to know" we usually don't waste the money.  I was ready to throw $10 in and I was sure I would win.  Even though we all agreed that more gambling at work would be a good thing, dinner ended without a handshake or even a verbal "you're on."

Fast forward 18 hours to yesterday afternoon.

Monty: "Stephen are you receiving?"
Stephen: "Go ahead."
Monty: "How much was the bet about whether the owl was a male?"
Stephen: " Let me guess, there's an egg."
Monty: " Yup."

While there is still some suspicion that the egg might have been carefully placed in one of the nest scrapes by someone looking to make me look the fool, I am left to eat my words.  There is not much more definitive proof of sex than an egg.

I guess she figured she would have to make her own nest scrape if no lousy male was going to do it for her.


I have decided to start a blog. When I ask myself "why would you do something so silly and time consuming?" I struggle to find a good answer. Then I remember that I experience lots of cool things at work on a daily basis and I think there are people that might be interested in hearing about them. At the very least, I will improve my writing skills for that novel I keep dreaming about and it will give me reason to focus on the positive things that are happening in my professional life. So, off we go.

For those that don't know, I am the Director of Education for a non-profit organization called The Center for Birds of Prey located in Awendaw (just outside of Charleston), SC. Over the past 20 years, the Center has gone by several other names which are of little importance as they are the past. It has not always been an easy past. I am going to strive to make that the last mention of said "difficult past" in this blog. This blog is about the good. Birds are good.

Here at the Center, we work with birds, primarily raptors. The focus of the work is to utilize birds of prey as a foundation for the understanding of environmental issues through education, research and the treatment of injured birds in a medical setting. As you probably gathered by my title, the focus of my work is utilizing birds to teach. We have a collection of raptors that we utilize in a variety of educational settings (display, flying demonstrations, school visits) to help expose our "students" to the importance of, threats facing, and general "coolness" of birds. We also have a fantastic campus in the coastal plain of SC with a huge diversity of habitats and therefore a wide variety of wild birds of all shapes and sizes.

This blog will focus on the birds and the people we experience every day here at the Center. There will be some recurring characters. There will always be new faces. I need to get a camera so I can add images to help you see what we see. I'll see what I can do.

So, I am off to work. Outside my window, some "butter butts" (yellow rumped warblers Dendroica coronata) are flitting through the bushes dangerously close to the window pane. Careful fellas. The parking lot is filling with cars. The "Tourist in Your Own Town" program brings us hundreds of visitors a day throughout January. I am sure there will be some interesting dialog as well as the potential for many new friends for the Center. There is a stiff, cool breeze which will make for some great flights in the demonstration. I'll let you know how it goes-