Category Archives: Birds

An ear-full of waxwings…

…or a museum if you prefer.

Cedar waxwings

Many years ago (eons in Internet age) I searched for an Internet name that suited me. Because I was into birding, I focused on avian handles. I tried “chickadee” but it was already taken in the places I wanted to join. I considered “painted bunting,” a bird I longed to see in person, but the name seemed a little suggestive. I finally settled on cedar waxwing because it was probably my favorite bird at the time, one I’d only seen a precious few times and one whose looks always made me smile. Cedar waxwings look like they are wearing cat-eye sunglasses.

Luckily for me no one else used the name “cedarwaxwing” or “Cedar waxwing” or even “waxwing” on any of the social media sites I was interested in joining. This continued for years, although I don’t think I was able to score a cedarwaxwing account at gmail. I did register a waxwing account there though and it has been my general email account since September 2004.

Over the years I have received a fair number of misdirected emails from people or companies that I had nothing to do with. Not of the SPAM variety, but genuine mistakes.

I have gotten emails from travel agencies with other people’s itineraries. I have gotten emails from personal trainers with complete workout instructions attached. I got an email thanking me for nominating a cyclist for an award.

I usually respond to the email and explain that they have the wrong email address. I rarely hear back. But recently I have had pleasant conversations with strangers concerning the mistake.

Elizabeth, for instance has sent me (thinking I am Kim and Jess) Easter, valentine, fourth of July and general catch-up emails. I responded each time, explaining I was not Kim and Jess. I never heard back until this year when I replied to the entire group, explaining that I was becoming concerned that Kim and Jess were not getting all the well-wishes. I immediately received an email from Elizabeth’s sister explaining that Elizabeth was not all that worldly when it came to emails. She promised to talk to Elizabeth and figure out Kim and Jess’ real email address. Elizabeth replied later, apologizing, but also saying she’d been using my email address for Kim and Jess for 10 years. That was Valentine’s day. I got another Easter email and just left it. Poor Kim and Jess.

In late February I received a confirmation of an order made by Kenneth of Swansea, Wales, UK for some light bulbs. Because there was no way to contact Kenneth by email since he used mine, I wrote him a letter and mailed it to him. I promptly forgot about it and was surprised, and touched that Kenneth sent me an email explaining the situation a couple of weeks ago:

Hi Dona,

Please accept my sincere apologies for the mix up when I used the wrong email address. You were very kind in taking the trouble to write to me.

Unfortunately, I mislaid your letter which had only now come to light.

I am a very keen birdwatcher, who, sadly has never seen a Waxwing. The bird has fascinated me since childhood so it seemed opportune to use it as an email address. You had beaten me to it with Google, so I added a “my…”. However, I recently bought a domain where I can use Wax.wing. I must have mixed things up when creating both the order and the separate history site. Sincere apologies again for causing you this trouble.

I hope you have managed to see Waxwings!



(In Wales, it is common to give your child two names, but use the middle one, hence I’m not known as Kenneth)

I replied that I’d forgotten that I sent him the note and that I had, indeed, seen cedar waxwings. I also sent him a photo of a cedar waxwing that stopped in my yard.

The day after I received Paul (aka Kenneth)’s email and while I was waiting to board a plane for Seattle, I received an email from “Jerry’s Rogue Jets, Oregon’s one and only mail boat tour, delivering Fun Since 1895!” I was confused since we were headed to Oregon as soon as we picked up our rental car and thought that perhaps Clare had booked a mail boat tour (whatever that is). I checked the invoice and saw that it was another case of someone using the wrong email address. This time it was a woman named Amy. Luckily her telephone number was also on the invoice so I called it and left a message. She replied with a text message about an hour later, just as I was boarding the plane.

Hi- thank you for the heads up on the invoice. Corrected. Sorry for the trouble. You are the original waxwing! I’m #26.

Some people would not bother setting people straight about email address mistakes, but I think it is the right thing to do. Not that you have to go overboard, but just because waiting for an email can be a pain. The replies I have received have always been pleasant and the people have always been thankful and I have had, albeit brief, conversations with these people with whom we share a love of one genus of bird.

I am sure I will continue to receive misdirected emails and I am sure I will continue to reply.

Nemesis no more

In the world of birding a nemesis bird is a bird that a birder has gone to some (often great) lengths to see but has had no luck. While I am an incidental birder at best, and probably have no right to call any bird my nemesis bird, I did go to some lengths to see a painted bunting on a number of occasions, yet when an opportunity arose to drive 45 minutes to see one a few years ago, I did not go.

The painted bunting is probably the most colorful bird the United States has to offer. I was so taken with this bird that I considered using its name as my online name but thought it might be a little too suggestive so chose cedar waxwing instead.

A number of springs ago I arranged a vacation for my family and another family to stay on Tybee Island near Savannah in Georgia so I could see a painted bunting — something the island is known for. Even though I went to the places painted buntings usually hang out a couple of times that week, I never saw one. In fact, the folks there said that they’d not seen one that year.

There was a painted bunting sighting in Annapolis a few years ago, as reported on a birding list I subscribe to. I considered trying to see the bird, but shyness won out. One Saturday I had a conversation with a woman at a rugby game whose son was on the opposing team from Andrew’s team and she mentioned that she had a painted bunting at her feeder in Annapolis (I must have had binoculars with me). It turned out it was the same bird that was mentioned on the list and she invited me to visit the next week for coffee to see the bird for myself. I said I might and we exchanged telephone numbers, but I didn’t go.

Whenever we visited Florida I’d keep the painted bunting on my mind whenever we were in a natural area. The two times I visited Mississippi I thought I might be able to catch a glimpse of one — but no luck.

We always visit Merrritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Playalinda Beach when we visit Dean’s sister, Diane, who lives in Orlando, Florida. This year we headed to Vero Beach / wetlands first, but it began raining and we didn’t see too many birds on our brief, wet walk. I suggested we drive up to Merritt Island, have lunch, then go birding there. After lunch at Sonny’s BBQ we stopped at the Merritt Island NWR Visitor’s center. I immediately checked the log to see if a painted bunting had been seen (one had — right at the visitor’s center). I went outside and saw a man with a camera who was saying to his female companion something about how the female looked so different from the male. I knew, then, I was going to see a painted bunting. I asked him if he was talking about a painted bunting, explaining that it was my nemesis bird. He moved away from the railing so I could get a good look. There in the bushes was a blue, red, green and yellow bird. The man with the camera said, “Nemesis no more” and moved on to let me enjoy my ex-nemesis bird in solitude.

Dean took a photo for me, I took a few more, Diane even took a photo.

As I turned around to leave, two other very excited people were walking towards the feeder saying, “Painted bunting! It is a painted bunting!” I smiled, knowingly. at them, knowing exactly how they felt.

To Indigo Bunting on the occasion of her birthday

in 2006 I discovered a group of people who wrote snippets about other people they knew using the number of words they’d been on Earth. I thought it sounded like fun and began my own 365 blog. The very first person to comment on my work went by the nickname “Indigo Bunting”. For those of you who are not familiar with common bird names, an indigo bunting is a beautiful blue bird (often mistaken for a bluebird).

Indigo Bunting said there were a couple of reasons she was interested in my posts. One was that she’d lived in my hometown in the 1980s. Another was that she knew two other women who spelled their name the same way I did. A third was that she once lived in a town a couple towns over from where I know live. I was in awe of her way with words and immediately began reading her 365 from the beginning. The way she shaped her sentences and phrases taught me a thing or two about short-writing.

Eventually many of the core group of the original 365 group started new blogs and we followed each other to those. Indigo Bunting is slightly less prolific on her own blog than she is in commenting on other people’s blog posts. I don’t know how she does it — nearly every time I read someone’s blog post, Indigo has already been there and written the perfect comment.

Her blog is so well written — usually humorous, sometimes heartbreaking, always highly readable.

Not only is Indigo a remarkable writer, she is also a birder, an editor, a skater (ice and roller), a fly fisher person, and expert on fly fishing, a lover of roller derby and she can still turn cartwheels like a kid.

Happy Birthday Indigo Bunting! Best wishes for the coming year. Live long and write lots of blog posts.


Birder Watching at Magee Marsh

Someone's lost bird list
Someone’s lost bird list
Chestnut Sided Warbler
Chestnut Sided Warbler

A year or two ago I saw a tweet by a fellow twitter birder / accessibility advocate about her trip to Magee Marsh in Ohio.  I kept it in the back of my head because we drive right by it when we travel to and from Illinois.

Then a few months ago I read The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik (on IB’s recommendation) and later saw the film based on the book.  I was interested in the characters,  especially the Maryland-based birder, Greg Miller — the one who worked at the nuclear power plant (played by Jack Black in the movie).  I googled his name and found out he moved back to Ohio and was active in Ohio birding.  His blog talked about the “Biggest Week in American Birding” festival which was planned for May — around the time the warblers were due to fly back to Canada.

Warbler season,  if not The Biggest Week,  corresponded with our trip to Oberlin to pick up Andrew,  about an hour from Magee Marsh.  I hoped to visit Magee and perhaps add a few warblers to my life list. Then Dean decided we should visit Illinois before the kids got out of school. This week did correspond with the Biggest Week and as we’d be stopping in Oberlin for the night to visit Andrew I planned on heading to Magee Marsh on our way to Illinois.

I mentioned this to the aforementioned birder/accessibility advocate and she made plans to meet me at Magee.


I didn’t really know what to expect, but knew that I’d be seeing a lot of birders. One of the funniest parts of The Big Year was seeing a bunch of people stare through binoculars at something in a tree. I wondered if I’d see something similar at Magee Marsh. I also knew that many of the birding folks I follow on Twitter were planning on being at Magee Marsh that week. Seeing some of the tweets got me really in the mood to go birding — something I’d not really done in years, except passively. I also knew that someone I’d hoped to meet someday, Sharon Stiteler aka Birdchick, would be around.


I did see a lot of birds, some new to me, some not. I only could identify a few. If  you’ve never been birding, one thing you need to be able to do is explain where a sighting is. I failed miserably. I saw something and mistakenly announced it loud enough for other birders in the general vicinity to hear me. I then tried to describe where it was and what it looked like. No one was able to follow my directions and there was an audible annoyed sigh when I said, “It’s gone.” (I saw it later and was embarrassed to find out it was a Baltimore Oriole. I know what they look like when I see the top of one, but this was from below. The orange of its breast was muted and looked yellow to me. I thought it was some sort of flycatcher.)

Deborah and me
Deborah and me

The birds were fun to see, some so close I didn’t need binoculars, but my favorite part was the birders. There were birders of all ages. I was surprised to see a large number of Amish birders, but it stands to reason — there are a lot of Amish in that part of Ohio.

I did see “Birdchick” but was too shy to say hello. I was not quite sure it was her, but when I saw tweets she sent prior to me seeing her proved she was just in front of me at the time. Next time I’ll make sure to say hello.

I really enjoyed meeting Deborah. We’ve been twitter buddies for years and have even spoken on the phone. She’s a lot more gregarious than I and she was not afraid to ask folks what they were looking at and ask for advice on what she was looking at.

This has rekindled a desire to get out and bird more often. I might even go on bird walks with other birders. In the past I wouldn’t add a bird to my life list if I didn’t ID it myself. I figure if real birders help each other ID birds, I can too. Now I need to get my verbal birding skills in order.

Here’s Deborah’s list of what we saw:

  • Wilson’s Warbler
  • Magnolia Warbler
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • Purple Martin
  • Blackburnian Warbler
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Great Horned Owls babies on tree limbs
  • Sandhill Crane
  • Great Egret
  • American Redstart
  • Northern Parula
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Black and White Warbler
  • Gray Catbird
  • American Robin
  • Canada Geese
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • Nashville Warbler
  • Chestnut-sided Warbler

The Scent of a Book

Library Scene Time MachineBefore last May, more than one person was surprised to hear that I didn’t own a Kindle or any other kind of e-reader. They knew about my love of gadgets and couldn’t imagine why I’d not bought an e-reader yet. My response was the same to all — as much as I loved technology, I liked the smell of a book better.

Everyone who owned an e-reader tried to get me on-board by telling me how light they were. How I’d be able to hold hundreds of books on it. How easy on the eye they were. I heard so many good things about e-readers that I finally researched them and ended up asking for, and receiving, a Nook Color for Mother’s Day last year. I chose the Nook Color because I’d heard it could be turned into a cheap Android tablet — in case I didn’t like the e-book aspect.

Now, a few months shy of a year later, I give you my opinion: I like the smell of a book.

I also like the feel of a book in my hands and I like the sound of the pages being turned. The other day I considered cataloging all of the books in my house with an app I downloaded on my phone. I was excited at the prospect to touch (and smell) each of my books again and either remember the time spent reading them or relish the anticipation I felt about reading them someday. Then I thought about the books I downloaded on my Nook (and the audio books on my mp3 player). I would never hold those books or smell them or hear their pages turning. Did I really read them? Do I really own them? Can I catalog them?

I recalled the library scene from the 1960’s version of The Time Machine. The Time Traveler pulls a book off a shelf only to have it crumble to dust in his hand. Later he is shown the Talking Rings. Are my e- and audio- books like the talking rings or are they nothing but binary dust motes?

Autograph of Roger Tory PetersonI have read a few books on my Nook Color. My favorite was Stephen King’s 11/22/63, but because I loved it so, I ended up with eye-strain headaches from reading it deep into the night. It was convenient to buy the book the day it came out — but it was a whim buy. I probably would have waited and asked for it for Christmas if I didn’t have the Nook.

Right now I am reading The Big Year on the Nook. (actually I am reading it on my Android phone because my husband is reading the Stephen King book on the Nook). Yesterday in The Big Year I read about Roger Tory Peterson’s account of his Big Year: Wild America and remembered finding a copy of that book in an antique store about 20 years ago. I was a novice birder but recognized one of the authors. Opening the book to check the price ($2.50) I also glanced at the title page and was astounded to see that Peterson had inscribed it with best wishes to a Lloyd Foster. Of course I bought the book. It smells delightful.

This creates another issue — how do authors autograph e-books?

Ms P. and the Rats of NIH(M)

I’m a birder. A lazy birder, but a birder nonetheless. It is part of who I am and has  been for more than half of my life.

One huge aspect of birding for me is feeding the birds. I have many bird feeders — two Droll Yankee tube-like feeders: one serves up tiny nyger seed that the finches love and one doles out larger seed such as sunflower, cracked corn or safflower. I also have decorative bird feeders — one looks like a birch log, but is ceramic. Another looks like a church, with a roof and clear plastic sides which hold in the seed — which I am surprised has not been chewed apart by squirrels yet. Then there are the suet cages and nyger seed socks.

I don’t have all of these feeders up at the same time. That would be unwise in Bethesda. I’d be the crazy bird lady. Recently I had one Droll Yankee feeder filled with sunflower seed and one nyger sock in back by the bird bath and one nyger sock outside the attic window.

One day I noticed that the nyger sock in the backyard had a huge hole in it. I wondered what animal had made this hole. I suspected it was a squirrel, but knowing that squirrels don’t particularly care for nyger seed, I was more than a little worried we had another rodent problem.

A few days later I looked out the window and saw the culprit. A large brown Norway rat. It was just after dinner and this rat was helping him or herself to the nyger seed. It was actually kind of cute — if you forget all the bad rat stories. But I was dismayed. I thought we were done with these things.

Years ago we had rats in the ductwork of our addition. Dean and I both noticed a funky smell coming from the heating vents in the sun room — it reminded me of the elephant house. When we discovered that it was a nest of rats, I was horrified and would never ever have admitted our discovery to anyone. I was embarrassed and ashamed and it lowered my self-esteem for a while. Dean, being the son of a dairy farmer, took care of it and we hoped we were done with rats.

The following January, however, we came home from our annual Christmas in the Midwest trip to find a rat had gotten into our house and was trapped in a mousetrap behind our stove. Dean took care of it, too. I was ready to hire an exterminator, but Dean felt that he knew what to do as well as any exterminator, so I believed him.

The next year was the year of cicadas in our area and when the cicadas died out the entire neighborhood had a rat problem. It seemed that the rats were displaced from NIH because of construction there. They didn’t care where they lived because they had a bounty of cicadas for several weeks, but after the cicadas were done with their (very cool) life cycle in our area, the rats had nothing to eat, so became a nuisance. I finally lost the embarrassment I was feeling about the rat problem we’d had — especially since other neighbors were admitting to having had rats in previous years as well.

Everyone dealt with the rats in their own ways, some hired exterminators while others, like Dean, took care of it themselves. The worst part of the rat problem for me, however, was having to give up feeding the birds. I had a slight meltdown when I realized I’d have to do this, but Dean said that maybe it would not be permanent. I held on to that hope.

We went a few years with no apparent rat problems — I even was able to feed the birds again until this year when I saw the rat eating the nyger seed.

So now I’ve had to store my bird feeders for good. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to feed birds in the backyard again — certainly not at this house. I think I can still feed them at the attic windows — but it’s not really the same. I’ll not be seeing any more Rose Breasted Grosbeaks feeding on sunflower seed outside the window in the back yard.  I can still provide water for the birds and I have started looking more at planting more bird friendly plants in the yard. But I feel as if a part of my personality has been lost for good.

Christmas Tree Bird Count

Yeah, we got snow. Lots and lots of snow, but that didn’t stop me from birding this afternoon. I saw a surprising number of rarities for this time of year and for this area — must have been the Nor’easter.

The first bird I saw was very far from home. I am not sure of the exact species, but it sure was decked out in warm weather gear. You’d think he (or she) would be toasty in the above freezing temperatures here in Bethesda without all that warm weather gear.

Warmly dressed penguin

The second bird I spotted was a common resident here in all seasons, but most welcome in the winter after a snow when its red coloring is a vibrant contrast to the snow.

Northern Cardinal
Northern Cardinal

I was delighted to spot my third bird of the day. This one of my favorites and, not counting today, I’ve only seen them two other times in my life — and had to take a boat ride to do so.


The next bird was one I had trouble identifying because they are not found in the United States. I did see some similar species in Ireland, but even the Internet didn’t help. I think it is some sort of Tit.

Not sure -- A Blue Tit perhaps?
Some sort of Tit

The next bird is unidentifiable and nothing I’ve ever seen nor heard of. Based on its habitat I’m leaning towards albino cowbird. (and although not a bird, what IS that animal behind it?)

Not sure but better looking than the pig
Abino Cowbird

Again, another bird far from its natural setting. This one was quite shy and wouldn’t smile for the camera.

Pelican (Possibly Brown)

The next two birds look similar to the bird near the barn, above, but have double neck rings. They may be related, but probably are not the same species. I’m thinking they are a vagrant species blown in by the winter storm from Africa — given their symbiotic relationship with the fox. I’ve seen enough nature shows to know that Africa has a lot of birds that sit on backs of bigger animals. I wonder whose heart the birds are fighting over.

Not sure -- but they have a symbiotic relationship with that fox
Vagrant Species from Africa that eats hearts of animals

The next one is very familiar to me, although I don’t see it nearly often enough. It’s without a doubt my favorite bird. This one is lacking a little color, but it has enough identifying field marks for me to know what it is.

Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing

The next bird has no identifying marks at all. It may be the same species as the one by the barn, but its bill looks a lot different. In fact this one’s bill looks more like a warbler or titmouse, but its body shape is more like a junco. I have no clue though, as to its identity.

Little Brown Bird
Little beige bird

This next one is easy.

Pheasant perhaps

I was shocked to find this fellow — especially after already seeing one earlier in the day. This one was dressed even more strangely than the first.

Penguin in a Top Hat

This next one is also hard to identify. It has the crest of a Jay or Cardinal, but is pale yellow. I’m just going to guess though.

Not sure
Yellow white-capped jay

The next one was also something I’d never seen before. It looks a little like a starling.

Not sure
Iridescent golden-bellied starling

Couldn’t find the next one on the Internet either.

Not sure
Black-beaked glitter-winged turtle dove

This next one looks somewhat like a wren so I’ll take a guess.

Maybe a hummingbird?
Cactus Wren

You cannot see the crest on this one in the photo, but it’s there.

Blue Jay perhaps?
Blue Jay

I don’t know what this is, but I suspect it is a variety normally found in Europe. Maybe Gwen can help out. In the meantime I’ll name it myself.

Not sure
Red-belted zebra-backed thrush

The last bird I spotted today is one of the hardest to identify. It has no identifying marks and only the color and shape provide any clue to what it is.

Little Brown Bird
Little Brown Bird

Although I’d love to take credit for the idea behind this post, I’m going to come clean and admit that Birdchick did it last year.

Spec nest?

[Update 5.25.09] She’s gone and left two eggs in the nest. Husband tossed some balls off the roof and I heard that they landed very close to the nest. I suspect one landed on the nest because one of the eggs has a crack along the side. Oh well. It was fun while it lasted.

[Update] She’s sitting on the nest now, so hopefully we’ll have a brood. I can just barely see her from the kitchen window. Yay.

Robin with flower
Robin with flower
In the rose of Sharon bush

Last week I looked out the back window and saw a robin hopping around the back yard carrying what looked like a bunch of white paper in her beak. She hopped across the back yard, flew to a rose of Sharon bush and then onto the branch of the ginkgo tree, all the while holding onto the wad of paper. Then I thought that perhaps she was carrying a white azalea flower instead of paper — it looked the right size and we have a few white azalea bushes in the yard.

I posted it on twitter and got a few fun responses.

A nearly hidden robin -- look for the white bit. That's her with her flower.

About an hour or so later I looked outside and saw the robin again — she still had the azalea blossom in her beak. This time I saw her fly into the pink azalea bush and I suspected she was building a nest there and this was a new azalea blossom. I looked up robin nests on All About Birds, but saw no mention of robins using flowers to build their nests, although it said they might incorporate paper into their nests sometimes.

I posted on twitter again and someone wondered if it was stuck in her throat or maybe she was going to prom.

The next morning Dean mentioned that a robin was hanging out in the bush that kept coming back. He thought she might be building a nest. Sure enough, there she was — this time bringing long bits of grass with her each return trip.

a decorated nest
a decorated nest

That afternoon I couldn’t stand the suspense. I wanted to see if the nest had white azalea blooms in it. I waited until I was sure the robin was elsewhere and peeked in the far side of the bush — I could barely make out the nest, but it did look like it had some bits of white in it. I tip-toed around to the side nearest the nest and wasn’t disappointed. She had, indeed, used some white flowers to pretty up her nest.

I think this is the same robin that built a nest under the eave of the neighbor’s porch but abandoned it the day after mother’s day. I hope that she does raise a brood in her decorated nest, but I’m not all that hopeful. She returned the day after I took the photo of the nest, but I’ve not seen her since. Mabye she just likes building nests with no intention of living in them. I’ve heard of spec houses, but never spec nests.

Unfortunately, although the pink azalea bush looked like a great place to build a nest when it was in full flower — it might prove to be a poor choice once the flowers are gone because it is not hidden as well as it could be and is quite low to the ground.

[Apologies for the poor quality of the photographs. I took most of them from inside, through a window.]

Winter & Birds

I actually started this post last December but was so astonished and disappointed in my memory I didn’t finish it.

I wrote it after hearing birds sing one December morning last year and remembering the poem, below, that I used to recite aloud in our empty two-car garage.

I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.

‘We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,’
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.

– Oliver Herford, I Heard a Bird Sing

I thought the poem was from the “Song of Solomon” and may have actually told people it was. When I looked the poem up on the World Wide Web I discovered that it was not part of the Song of Solomon after all, but by someone named Oliver Herford.

I realize, now, why I made the mistake. The book of poetry that contained I Heard a Bird Sing also held this part of the Song of Solomon:

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

Now I don’t feel so bad — they are both about winter and birds and in the same book.

Photo by James Jordan