Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.

Choosing binoculars: price vs. quality

Posted by: Jim Williams under Birding equipment Updated: October 27, 2014 - 8:36 PM

Choosing binoculars is often an effort to combine best price with best quality. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has reviewed a wide variety of binoculars ranging in price from less than $200 to over $3,000. A helpful graph showing choices was published in the Autumn 2013 issue of the Lab's magazine, "Living Bird." You can see it at <http://www.allaboutbirds.org/Page.aspx?pid=2675>

Just because she's beautiful

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird biology, Bird identification Updated: October 25, 2014 - 6:04 PM

This female Red-winged Blackbird was at our feeders today. Female birds often are drab counterparts to the males of their species. This bird, though, an adult in new fall plumage, is simply beautiful. 

Pterosaurs for a life list

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird books Updated: October 22, 2014 - 10:07 AM

Pterosaurs, Mark P. Witton author and illustrator, Princeton University Press, hardcover, 290 pages, amply illustrated, list of references, index, $35.


If you had been around during a very early period of Earth’s natural history —100 to 300 million years ago — and had a penchant for listing flying creatures, pterosaurs would have been perfect for you. One-hundred and thirty species known so far, with many distinguishing characteristics. No ID book at that time, but this book will do nicely now.


Pterosaurs flew, but they are not related to birds. They were flying lizards, reptiles with wings.


This is not light reading. Determination is required for the layman. You get to meet, however, a fascinating family of creatures that once dominated the skies. Witton, artist as well as writer, gives the reader a set of pterosaur portraits that draw heavily on supposition and imagination, given the lack of fleshed out models. The paintings are really cool. 


And, they would have made a great show-off list.


(I have no photos.)

Family Passenger Pigeon stories

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird books, Bird conservation Updated: October 23, 2014 - 8:16 PM

The Passenger Pigeon, Errol Fuller, 2014, Princeton University Press, hardcover, 178 pages, illustrated, index, $29.95.


If my Great-grandfather Charles Williams had lived a bit longer, and if I had had an earlier interest in birds, I could have asked him for a first-hand account of Passenger Pigeons.


He was born in Indiana in 1857, when if pigeon numbers were dropping there were yet so many that any loss went unnoticed.


His father had moved to Indiana from Kentucky, and he surely saw the flocks at their peak.


Both of them ate Passenger Pigeon, I imagine. Why not? They were tasty, and supply was no problem.


But Charlie didn’t live long enough to tell me those stories. Instead there is Errol Fuller’s wonderfully told so-sad story of the extinction of this species. 


This is a handsome book, well-done in every regard. The sad story is made moreso by the photos and paintings in the book. They tell the story from the beginning of the slaughter to its end.


There are many photos of captive or dead birds in the book. The most graphic is a picture of Martha, the last pigeon alive, who died in the Cincinnati zoo 100 years ago. She lies under glass, on her back, feet to the air.


There are no authenticated photos, however, of live Passenger Pigeons in the wild, only photos of captives or preserved specimens. That is true in the book and in the results of a Google search.


Using Google I found a photo of a pigeon trapper, a live bird on his arm, like a pet, his traps at his side, and another of a railcar hung with strings of its cargo — pigeons being shipped east to be eaten. There is a photo supposedly of the pigeons, a huge pile of dead birds, with a man standing art the top. There is one photo on a Flickr page that shows a flock of birds large enough to darken the sky as it passed, as Passenger Pigeon flocks were said to do. There is no reference to verify its content, source, or authenticity, however.


At the end of the book is a short section of quotations from writings made by people who did see the birds: Cotton Mather, Pehr Kalm ( a Swedish botanist sent here to collect specimens), Alexander Wilson, John James Audubon, James Fenimore Cooper, Chief Simon Pokagon, and Mark Twain. 


They offer the first-hand accounts that Great-grandfather Charlie could have given me. If only.


There are many books written about this bird and the loss. This is the best one.


Crane show at Crex Meadows

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird migration, Bird sightings, Bird travels Updated: October 17, 2014 - 10:32 AM

Sandhill Cranes by the thousands are putting on a spectacular show right now at Crex Meadows Wildlife Area just north of Grantsburg, Wis. The birds roost in wet meadows on the refuge, flying out in the morning to feed in area crop fields, then returning in the 90 minutes before sunset. Yesterday, a couple of dozen viewers lined Main Dike Road to watch the birds sail over their heads as they dropped into the roost site. It's as close to a bird spectacle as you're going to get around here.

The Crex visitors' center is located at the corner of County Roads F and D. County F is the road you take out of downtown Grantsburg. At D, turn right; the center is on your immediate left. Maps of the refuge are available there. The birds can be seen from other vantage points, but Main Dike Road is best because the birds come to roost immediately north of it. (If there are no maps available, follow County D east from the visitors' center to East Refuge Road. Go left (north), until you reach Main Dike Road, which will T from the left. Follow Main Dike west.)

Yesterday offered a beautiful sunset against which to photograph the birds, fortunate happenstance.

Grantsburg is a 90-minute drive from downtown Minneapolis. Take I-35W north to Minnesota Highway 70, four miles north of the Rush City exit. Follow 70 east across the St. Croix River, and then into Grantsburg. Turn left at the light. Follow the crane silhouettes painted in yellow on the road. The birds are expected to remain in the area into early November. 


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