Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Bird Whisperer

Last night at the Beckham Bird Club meeting, Jean and I chatted about our husbands being out of town or otherwise busy today, and agreed to meet at Beckley Creek Park this morning for a little girl-time birding. The weather was absolutely perfect as we set off down the trail along Floyd's Fork.
The meadows are in full bloom with iron weed, milkweed, blue lupine and some yellow rayed flower I can't identify. The purple cone flowers have finished blooming, making this extra attractive to the Goldfinches, who were chowing down on the small seeds.
I love their little black caps and the way they can balance on the most slender of branches to pull minuscule seeds out of a pod.
On closer examination of the photos when I got home, apparently many of the blue birds I thought to be Indigo Buntings were in fact Blue Grosbeaks. The rusty patch on their wings and really large beak were the clues. With a beak like that, you expect them to eat only seeds, but these birds were going for the millions of grasshoppers in the fields this morning.
Some cardinal flower had been planted along the sidewalk, and I said "We should look for some Hummingbirds along here..."

and voila, Jean found a Hummer perched in a tree above the red blossoms. As the sun rose and warmed things up, I mentioned that we hadn't seen any Vultures yet. Turn around and voila, there are 6-8 Turkey Vultures soaring on their first warm thermal of the day. This meadow usually has lots of Meadow Larks in it but we haven't seen or heard any. Well, nesting season is over, so they don't need to sing, but voila, we saw 4-5 Meadow Larks in the next minute. Either we are just good about knowing what to look for in this spot, or I'm developing some new gift that allows me to summon birds like some sort of Bird Whisperer!  It was harder this morning, since we saw mystery brown birds that were probably juvenile somethings, and few birds were singing. We decided they were juvenile Red Winged Blackbirds later.
I did get a shot of a bird we couldn't identify, planning to send it to one of my expert birder friends for help. Before sending the email, though, I remembered the new Merlin Bird Photo ID service Cornell Univ has to identify birds by photo, and thought I'd give it a try. Some of the options they came up with were pretty weird, like Eurasian Collared Dove, Ovenbird and Common Grackle, but then it suggested a female or immature Common Yellowthroat, and their photo pretty well matched mine. Certainly Common Yellowthroats live in the area we found this bird. Pretty cool!
Not sure what kind of milkweed this is. It's pink like my swamp milkweed, but much shorter. Anyway, especially as the sun rose higher, we saw more Monarch butterflies than I've seen in years.
Everyone is making a to-do about the drop in population of Monarchs, and I'm glad effort is being made to save them. But I also haven't seen any Buckeyes or Fritillaries this year, and others I haven't even thought of yet.
The pond at the Grand Allee has been treated to keep the duckweed down, and now has an aerator bubbling to keep the water clear, and it does look nice.

Butterflies weren't the only insects enjoying the morning. We saw lots of dragonflies, such as this Widow Skimmer...
...and the ever noisy cicada. Park staff were mowing some fields nearby and the Barn Swallows were having a great time chasing down the grasshoppers. School started today in Jefferson County, but I'm glad for an opportunity for some nice weather birding!

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Raising Wrens

This late in the summer, most songbirds in the backyard are finished raising their young. Earlier, a pair of Carolina Wrens built a nest in the gourd outside our kitchen door, but they decided to raise a brood elsewhere apparently. In the last week or so, however, I've noticed them on the patio making LOTS of noise, as these small brown birds can do. One captive male Carolina Wren sang nearly 3,000 times in a single day.
I'll never figure out how they can hold a bug firmly in the beak, and sing or scold at the same time.
They particularly like to sit on the chairs around the patio table while delivering dinner to the chicks. Are they calling to waken the babies? To make sure no predators are around?
When we eat at the patio table, they are very unhappy. The scold us from the trees, the fences, nearby bushes, trying their best to chase these monsters away from their children.
The chicks hear them, and are getting big enough to stretch up and extend their beaks outside the hole in the gourd. "Here Mom, we're ready. Bring the bug on a fast fly-by, and we'll catch it!"
Either one of the parents got brave or we moved far enough away for their comfort, and this one made a stop at the nest. Think how many trips it must take them to feed one bug to each chick each time! Yet those little birds will incubate the eggs for 12-16 days, and in another 10-16 days the chicks are ready to fledge.
These chicks must be nearing the end of their days in the nest gourd. Here's one brave little guy taking a look at the world before he has to jump out into it. I'll know they are gone when the parents stop making a racket on my patio chairs all day!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Before and After the Storm

For a while, I was getting out to hike, bird and photograph on a regular basis. Lately, it seems to rain every day, or I am volunteering, or being on Nana duty. The weather map has shown a stalled front right over the Ohio River for weeks. But Saturday morning, the sun came out, and the rain predictions were low, so Dick and I headed out to Beckley Creek to enjoy the wildflowers.
Century 21 Parks sowed these field with wildflowers, and the result has been outstanding. We saw kayakers heading into Floyd's Fork. The water was quite high and the kayakers without life jackets - a bad combination. A family lost several members over July 4th when their rented boat crashed into construction barges on the Ohio River, tipping over at night during the fireworks program. They too weren't wearing life jackets. So sad.
As we walked the trails, we tried to identify the flowers, with some success and some failure. The blue Chickory is not native to Kentucky, but doesn't seem to be so invasive as other immigrants.
 The biggest confusion arose over the many yellow plants with rays. We could tell by the leaf of this that is it Cup Plant, which we have in our garden.
 Gray-headed Cone flower is pretty easy to tell. The heads are gray when it first blooms, but turn brown as they mature.
I think this is some kind of Tickseed. The beetle didn't care. This arrangement of small flowers at the center surrounded by rays is an evolutionary success.  I guess the plant gets the maximum chance of reproduction for a minimum of effort.
I used to know many butterflies and dragonflies at first glance, but now I have to take their pictures and look them up when I get home.
But sometimes, even that doesn't work if I can't find them in the book. These two have similar markings on their backs, and I bet they will end up being the same species. I am looking for the email of a bug expert to see if she can help.
Teasel comes in white and purple versions. Watch as their small flowers appear from the bottom and grow towards the top of the thorny structure. All sorts of bugs love them.
Queen Anne's Lace has always been one of my favorites. Look for the drop of "blood" in the center shed by the Queen as she makes these lacy flowers. Then when they finish blooming, they fold up into baskets.
After one solitary day of sunshine, we awoke to thunder and heavy rain on Sunday morning, lasting several hours. Only about 80 people made it to church this morning, and we decided to drive around the block when the street flooded in front of our house. A neighbor said he measured almost 4 inches in his rain gauge from the storm, and more is predicted for tomorrow. It has been an unusually wet summer this year.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Family Campout at Creasey Mahan

When I was a Girl Scout, many, many years ago, we went camping several times every year. As an adult, however, we usually stayed in cabins or the lodge at state parks, until we reached the ultimate luxury of time share condos. Dick used to take Andrew camping when Andrew was younger. Whenever I thought about going camping as an adult, I always cringed thinking of how to plan the food and cook it outside.
But a friend who is an experienced scout leader and camper, and his wife, both of whom are volunteers at Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve with me, organized two family camp outs in the last few years. This is our second, and most successful outing.
It stormed like crazy Friday night, and the clouds couldn't decide whether to stay or go all afternoon on Saturday. But by sunset, the sky cleared, the temps were very pleasant and it was perfect camping weather. We set up the tent with no help (Hooray for us!).
Our friend Karen Dean is a wonderful entertainer, and one of the boys got really involved with her song about the blue Martian! The astronomy club guy brought his telescope and we looked at Venus and Jupiter, which looked extra close to each other, the rings of Saturn and a binary star system. My Sky Guide ap on my phone was a big hit with the other campers.
 Of course, any time I can just wander around the Nature Preserve taking photos, I will jump at the chance. While pulling weeds along the paths in the Woodland Garden, I found scads of these small little Birdsnest fungi growing in the decaying woodchips.
Blue Dasher Dragonfly
While Dr. Frog, Karen's husband the biochemist, led the group of eager young boy campers in their search for frogs, I watched for the colorful dragonflys to land somewhere just long enough for me to focus on them.
 Then we walked out through the meadow to see what had started blooming in the week or so since I last visited there.
Common Milkweed
 Common milkweed is noted for being the host plant for the rapidly disappearing Monarch butterfly, but they also entice many other insects as well.
 The Passion Flower grows on a vine, and produces a large apple-like fruit. It is the host plant for the Gulf and Varigated Fritillary butterfly. Tavia says it is called the Passion Flower in reference to the Passion of Christ. In any event, is has a most unusual flower structure.
Purple Coneflower
 Purple must the color of summer, since so many summer blooming flowers are purple. Purple Coneflowers attract scores of butterfly species. As they mature, Gold Finches tear the petals off to eat the small seeds produced by the cone at the center of each blossom.
Purple Martin Female with Fecal Sac
 Moms are always busy changing diapers for their babies, and mother birds are no different. This female Purple Martin is ready to carry away the fecal sac from one of her chicks in the nest box.
Tree Swallow
I never mess with a nest of Tree Swallows. I didn't even know if this box was occupied or not, and the parent bird dive bombed us until we moved back enough to suit it. Then it dove into the box, leaving only the long dark blue wingtips exposed.
We decided to use sleeping bags instead of sheets and blankets this time. I was toasty warm and slept better than I often do at home. The dawn chorus of song birds was joined by a pair of Great Horned Owls hooting in the woods. Dawn is something that just slips by when you sleep at home. But outside, it calls you to rise and  be one with Nature for the new day.
Don't worry about the dewy grass. It will dry in a few minutes. Just appreciate the incredibly long shadows that will cross the fields for just a couple minutes.
Daddy Longlegs
 When I finally rolled out of my warm sleeping bag and started to dress, I noticed a Daddy Longlegs on the outside of the screen, but under the roof of the tent. Then I started counting, and found at least 13 of them, sheltering from the dew and, I suppose, spider predators. When we took down the tent after breakfast of burritos cooked on the big grill, I was careful to pick them up and fling them back into the grass. Don't want them living in the car- we've had enough trouble finding mouse nests in infrequently opened boxes and cloth things in the garage lately! In any event, many thanks to Charon, Doug and Dave for the long hours they put in planning this terrific outing!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Slow Down a Little, Won't You?

Wood Ducklings
Aren't you supposed to slow things down when you retire? Somehow, Dick and I have got it reversed, and we seem to be busier than ever since we retired. I couldn't survive without the calendar on my smartphone, and even with it, I fail to write things down and end up promising to be two different places at the same time on more occasions than I care to admit. Sigh.
Mute Swan
So, the last weekend in May was supposed to be spent camping out at Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve, and we were looking forward to it. Setting up the tent, smoke getting in your eyes, singing around the campfire, looking at the stars. All that good stuff. But Thursday evening, the weather forecast for the weekend was just awful, with high chances of storms, so the camp out was postponed. We were suddenly presented with free, unscheduled time over the weekend. Golly! It's been a long time since that happened, what should we do about it?
 Let's take a walk on the Anchorage Trail. Listened to some birds and posted on eBird - I'm getting better at that. And we found this giant crawdad in the grass. He must have been 6 - 8 inches long, and was quite aggressive as I neared for a close up photo. These are the guys who build big mud volcanoes in peoples' yards. When I looked it up online, I mostly found links to sites with ways to get rid of them. Look at the orange tips on his pincers!
When he decided we weren't looking any more, he moved quickly through the grass, but the creek was behind him, so I don't know where he was actually headed.
Saunders Springs Nature Preserve
Saturday, we actually ran errands, went to the Farmer's Market and worked in the yard. How ordinary, and how we enjoyed it. I cooked a colorful dinner that we ate on the patio with a cold glass of Turtle Run wine. On Sunday, I joined a small group of Beckham Bird Club members driving to Radcliffe, KY, near Fort Knox, for a birding trip to a new location, for me at least, Saunders Spring Nature Preserve. The local tourism department describes it as "a heavily wooded natural area located on steep terrain with interesting historic features...located on the edge of the Karst Plateau in the Highland Rim physiographic region of Kentucky. The area is characterized by many sinkholes, caves and springs which drain a network of underground caverns." 
Louisiana Waterthrush
The streams literally ran out of the steep hillsides, bubbling down the valley. The very first bird we saw, bobbing its tail in the grass, was a Louisiana Waterthrush. We must have seen at least ten of them during the morning hike! Most of the time, we birded by ear, since all the trees were fully leafed out, and combined with the overcast skies, the lighting was just awful. Any birds we did find were usually seen only in silhouette against the gray sky. I've never understood why this bird is called a thrush when it's actually considered to be a warbler. 
Kentucky Warbler
We also heard/saw Hooded Warblers, Kentucky Warblers, and Acadian Flycatchers. The Summer and Scarlet Tanagers sang but could not be enticed to come down for a visit. The path along the creek eventually ended in a meadow created by a drained beaver pond. You could see evidence of their work, but the water was gone, and grass covered the stumps.
When the birds were hard to find, we appreciated the signs pointing out various wildflowers and trees along the trail. The ferns were "ferntastic!" In fact, next spring, I plan to return to see all the wildflowers blooming, since we saw so many with seeds on them today. Of course, when it rains, the whole valley must disappear under water, so timing will be important. Maybe I can get there early enough to see the Hepatica.