On the Trail & ‘Round the Campfire

Welcome to my little diversion from the daily grind. Pull up a log or, just sit on yer’ fist and lean back on yer’ thumb (put a smiley face here) and let’s share a moment. I’ll throw another blog in the fire every now and then and, we’ll chew the fat about such mundane things as birds, nature, cowboys and the southwest, USA. I may even wax poetic or philosophical occasionally, but always honoring our creator. If you like something you read, please leave yer’ tracks.

Birding Articles

I have this idealistic idea that if you share your love of nature with people and, if you share your interest and appreciation for the woods and wildlife with the next generation, they may be stirred with a desire do the same. So, that is my basic reason for sharing and passing on a few thoughts and experiences of nature and some places of enjoyment in the wilds.

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Though uncommon and very localized here in SoCal, I have known over the years that the Yellow-breasted Chat migrates to our area in the spring. But, they are very secretive and skittish, so they are hard find and observe. Over the years, I have known their chatty vocals, so have heard them in the dense willows and thickets, even at our local Guajome Park, here in Vista, CA...

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tb20460Whether horseback or afoot, cowboys enjoy their outdoor surroundins. I've known a few cowhands who enjoy birdin' (bird watching) as they ride their spread and work their cattle, spring and fall. I knew one that even tended some bluebird nest boxes he'd attached to bobwire fence posts, way out on the open range He told me of both Western and Mountain Bluebirds that had nested in his boxes. Since he's carryin' binoculars anyway, he may even carry a Peterson's Bird Guide in his saddlebag. But, modern cowpokes carry Sibley's Field Guide. The diversion of birdin' gives him another reason to appreciate the seasons and notice his grand surroundins'

Well, I leave the warmth of the old wood stove this late October morning. The trail to the fence line is carpeted with the faded discards of summer, like frosted flakes for breakfast. The breeze is holding her breath lightly and among the russets and rufous-reds are hints of yellow green, and my horse is feelin' her oats on the first frosty mornin'. My old stoved-up hip from earlier days aches less in the rising sun and azure sky and scattered puffs of cotton vapor. Carrying a pocket full of blessings and following my breath past rail fences, dark-eyed juncos twitter and flash their tails just ahead of me—and I covet the solitude of ridin' the fence line past these woods.

6193651123 73661b6007Before reaching the feeding grounds of corn fields and walnut groves, somewhere on the other side of the north pasture, a flock of crows stir up a riot and shout obscenities at a day-sleeper, a poor horned owl trying to settle in for a day's rest. He was snuggled up against a scaly trunk in perfect camouflage, at least so he thought, until being persecuted by those of dark temperament.
And then, there they are again—hanging upside down—a half a dozen indecisive goldfinches, now fading to winter tans. They do the dipsy-doodle in front of my horse, from clumps of fuzzy milkweed to fluffy cottontails of parched thistle. And past the nettles on the other side of the willows, song sparrows volley occasional fall notes like crystal bells, then dash in erratic flight, diving for cover in the bramble-berries near the creek.

Riding on beneath the sycamores, there is a tasting room of claret poke berries hanging heavy with purple clusters, inviting waxwings and thrushes and the occasional mockingbird. Nearby, puffed up lark sparrows with hatpin breasts, and white crowned sparrows, seek the morning sun on the tangle of a big old elderberry —a feeding magnet for mockers and phainopeplas in the spring.

Last spring I had spied out the edge of the woods and two most unusual aerial shows were in progress. One consisted of micro-filaments drifting in the morning sun. Buoyant spider webs drifting like minute cable-crossings, hemstitching sunrays to shadows with silken strands of opaque silver threads; migrating to any destination or twig... truly a unique sight. And, the woods were filled with emerging subterranean or dry-wood termites. They erupt seasonally, spring and fall, and fill the air with glittering propellers, like tiny helicopters, seeking more dead wood to ingest and recycle into methane gas. Yellow-rumped warblers had an acrobatic heyday and the air was filled with their 'cheet, cheet! They acted like kids in a candy store and I somehow sensed their joy and satisfaction!

Crossing the creek, the marsh is busy near the tulles, a conservatory for mallard voice training; they yak and laugh at soprano mockingbirds sounding like hand-carved ducks calls. Annoyed, a great blue heron rises languid and hang-glides to the silent distant shore. Soon he is pointing his proboscis in a steely stare at some unseen movement in the muddy shallows.

I quietly dismount in the shadows, but no matter how sneaky or quiet I am, those sharp-eyed painted wood ducks catch my silhouette in the brushy woods and fly up whining like 4th-of-July rockets, warning every creature of my presence. Ah... but, two northern shovelers stay and feed, allowing me to focus my binocs on their beauty; they put on a real show by spinning around each other like tops.

Well... I left the old wood stove cracklin' and it beckons my return to stir the coals and heat up another cup of coffee. Funny how October days and tawny leaves of frosted flakes, migrating warblers and heron tracks in the mud always seem new—evoking another encore. So, I'll ride this trail again and again before the muted light of winter, or my gimpy 'ol hip can't sit in the saddle no more.

© Ed Keenan

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Remember my August post about a "Feathered UFO?

I shared my field notes of a spectacular exotic bird, of orange color, that I have never identified. I said it still bugs the heck out of me not knowing what I saw.

I'm sure someone can ID this beauty from the description. (If so, please send me a note). Till then, or until I get the right "bird book," I've reverted back to my childhood—to my personal identification system––what we have here is a "Flame-collared-feathered UFO!"

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Orange Bishop
Click to enlarge.

Sure enough, from my field notes a reader named Spencer sent me a nice note and some photos about the bird I had seen and never identified:

Your mysteries are resolved and you got a great shot of the Nutmeg Mannikin...

From your notes, it seems what you saw is an exotic finch called an Orange Bishop. You can clearly see how appropriate that name is. Or as one might say: "it's easy to see why it is called a Bishop; it definitely looks like ecclesiastical regalia. The Pope would love it.

The very last place I'd expect to find one was at the grounds of the Huntington Beach Library but, there were several in the tulles, behind the library. The unique Nutmeg Mannikin that you saw in Vista, is also established there.


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Nutmeg Mannikin
Click to enlarge.

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In many ways birding is about anticipation and surprise—the first-time experience of seeing a new species. Nothing quite explains it like the first-time experience.

So, here I was on this exciting birding escapade and saw this particular bird for the very first time. In my excitement I exclaimed: Look! A Wood Thrush! The person next to me said: So? She strung out the 'o' in 'so' with a long inflection that made it sound singsong, sliding upward at the end like a Swainson's Thrush instead of a Veery. I got her point immediately, and my spirit dove for cover with this feeling of embarrassment. She finished off her 'so-oo' by remarking, "that's a junk bird".

It seems no matter how often I observe the locally common birds, as common as they are they are still just as enjoyable today as they were seventy years ago. That was before I could identify any one of them by their proper name. Yes, before the acronym UFO, we were observing many unidentified feathered objects.

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Bonding with nature in my own backyard? —Nah, not possible. To bond with nature, I need to get away and go where nature is, where all the wildlife roam free in the wild. I need to get away from this grimy asphalt and paved-over world, corralling me with chain-link fences! I need to get out where the creeks and rivers and canyons of green are teaming with birds and other interesting creatures.

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"...absence makes the heart grow fonder"

Growing up as a boy in the 1940's, in the remote backcountry of southern California, I always had an interest in the wild birds. But, a "bird book" as we know today, was nonexistent. By "bird book" I mean a "field guide", an identification guide to wild birds.

Until the publication of such an identification guide by Roger Tory Peterson, in the 1930's, there was no such thing as a, pocket-size, bird book— that is, a field guide for birders. Besides his crisp, colorful, drawings of each bird, Peterson used his now famous method of ID pointers to help amateurs identify wild birds in the field. His unique method became world-renowned.

Peterson's original "Field Guide to The Birds" covered only the eastern United States. It was not until the 1940's that he eventually turned his attention to the birds of the western United States—"A Field Guide to Western Birds". My interest in wild birds began during this same time, when I was about eight years old.

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I have made short trips and long distance trips just to catch a glimpse of a bird that I had never seen. I have studied and researched the habits and whereabouts of a bird in another county, state and country. I have flown hours to a distant place, gotten up early, drove for miles, wandered in the woods, and stayed late to hear and see a single Bachman's Sparrow in east Texas. So, after all that birding and searching, how is it that I can still pursue a live bird right in my own backyard?

You only get one shot at tom turkey—maybe two. From chicks to jakes to 
old toms, they are cagier than an early Native American; and more sly and cunning
 than a bobcat, more aware and alert than a coyote... that's how they stay alive.
 So, for a birder to see a wild turkey in the wilds, up close and personal, it
 doesn't happen without careful planning.

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OK, let's start by throwin' our first blog on the fire. How about the outdoor enjoyment of bird watching also called "birding" and "twitching" in the southwest? Twitching is the old Englishman's term for bird watching. In this country the whole idea of bird watching began on the east coast. As the English inhabited the native land so did their passion for watching birds. In fact, the famous artwork of naturalist and twitcher, John Audubon, was mainly to record and identify the new found birds for the English royalty, on this new found continent, called America. There were no wildlife cameras and lenses back then, not even an instant Polaroid! So it is that, in the USA, everything about "birding" and "twitching" began on the east coast. In reality, not much has changed in the academia of birding.

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—Some esoteric thoughts and intro to a nature poem

What is there about a certain place that we feel its influence pressing on our spirit? What are the elusive influences that make themselves felt along a faded trail rising from the desert floor to the piney woods? What particular spirit seems to color our mood or quicken our feeling of existence? Are they not the guardians of our very being, the sentinels of our longing?

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