Sunday, April 26, 2015

Birds and Blooms II

Zebra Swallowtail on Dogwood Blossoms
If you are having trouble locating the flitting, darting little warblers in the spring, you can always take photos of wildflowers. At least they only move when the wind blows.
Dwarf Crested Iris
Many spring wildflowers are white, but sometimes you find bright blues, reds and yellows. The colors look different to pollinators who can often see in ultraviolet light.
Canada Violets
Roses are red, Violets are blue, or white or yellow...Usually violets grow close to the ground, but the Canada Violet has a long stem and a yellow center in each blossom.
Halberd Violet
Other violets leaves of elongated shape or varied shades of green.
Yellow Lady's Slippers
It's always the thrill of the season to find any kind of orchid, so when a friend asked if we'd seen the Yellow Lady's Slippers growing on the roadside, we hopped in the car immediately. You would expect a bright yellow like this to flash like neon, but it's so easy to drive right by them if you don't know exactly where they are. Two professional photographers with tripods were our clue. We saw single blossoms, or pairs, then found a cluster of four and another of SIX blossoms! What a thrill!
Pink Lady's Slipper
We found a single Pink Lady's Slipper almost by accident, growing all by itself on the top of a large boulder down by the Visitor's Center just below the Falls. People walked right by it all day without seeing it.
Sweet White Trillium, Jewel Wakerobin - t simile
Trilliums have three of everything - three leaves, sepals, petals - so they are easy to recognize. Natural Bridge State Park has similar geography, and there are loads of Trillium there, but we found very few plants at Cumberland Falls State Park, and a few different species at Yahoo Falls in McCreary County. How disappointing.
Sweet Betsy - t cuneatum
Telling them apart can be a real challenge. Be sure to use a field guide that puts all of them together for comparison. Since most of them have dark red or white blossoms, you can't rely on color or leaf shape to make an ID. The trick is to look closely at the colors of the reproductive parts - the stamens and ovary.
Red Trillium, Stinking Benjamin, Red Wakerobin, Stinking Willie - t erectum
There are sooo many common names for trillii (trilliums?) so even I try to pay attention to the latin names for them. Many of them refer to the unpleasant odor. Less common names for the t erectum include American Tru-Love, Bumblee Root, Indian Shamrock and Threeleaf Nightshade!
Solomon's Plume fka False Solomon's Seal
Every year I seem to take photos of the same kinds of flowers, but that's OK. They are always beautiful!
Fire Pink

Foam Flower

Squaw Root

Star Chickweed

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Birds and Blooms

Black-throated Green Warbler
Every spring, we have a hard decision to make. Where shall we go this year for birds and blooms? We belong to several organizations which sponsor weekends at various state parks. Or there are trips to the Smokey Mountains or Magee Marsh in Ohio. April is also a busy time for our volunteer activities, so it's hard to get away at all. Add the Kentucky Derby to the equation (even though we aren't too much into horse racing) plus grandchildren, and you can see our dilemma. Sigh.
Yellow-throated Warbler
This year we threw a dart at the wall (figuratively speaking of course), and decided to join the Kentucky Ornithological Society on their spring trip to Cumberland Falls State Park. I haven't been to this park, home of the "Niagara of the South," since we were newlyweds with no vacation money. Plus, if we are looking for warblers on migration, it's always best to go with the experts. We came a day early to take a few hikes on our own before the official activities began. The Weather Channel forecast rain and storms for all day Saturday and most of Sunday, but birders are tough, so I just packed my raincoat and pants.
Black and White Warbler
Birders are subject to an ailment in the spring known as "warbler neck." You guessed it - watching these small but often colorful birds can give you a stiff neck from looking straight overhead all day. Since most of the facilities at Cumberland Falls State Park are built atop steep sandstone cliffs, we had one advantage over the birds. We can stand on the cliff top, and see many birds at eye level! Our trip leader today knows every bird song and call there is, so when we heard a bird, he brought out his phone, with birdsong software and a wireless speaker to invite the bird in for a closer look. Some came in, but hid among the leaves and blossoms on the trees. Others darted from branch to branch so quickly, it was hard to find them in the binoculars let along a camera lens. But birders are nothing if not persistent!
Kentucky Warbler
This little Kentucky Warbler slipped in to spy on us from behind a branch. Then he popped over the top of the branch to challenge us in song, before dropping back into hiding again.
Hooded Warbler

We saw and heard more Hooded Warblers than anything else today. Some on our trip were disappointed not to see more variety, more exotic species of birds. I, on the other hand, was glad for a chance to reinforce my somewhat scanty knowledge of the more common warblers shown here. I don't get out to go birding as often as I did a few years ago, and from year to year I tend to forget birds I might only see once a year. This weekend allowed me to add some good photos to my collection. I only hope I will remember the songs for them after I get home!
Northern Parula
One little bird was easy to identify by ear, but trying to pronounce its name.... You probably know of the controversy between the "pill-e-ated" and "pile-e-ated" woodpecker. There is also the "par-you-la" and the "pa-roo-la".  If George Gershwin were still alive, he could probably write a song, concluding "let's call the whole thing off!"
Red-eyed Vireo
Among the warblers, we saw and heard several species of vireos. When I was a Brownie Scout in Ohio, we went to day camp in the summer, and I remember one bird that sang all day, no matter how hot it got. When I became a birder, many, many, many years later, I was surprised to find that call came from the mysterious Red-eyed Vireo. It still sings from the tree tops all day long. And they all seem to be named after colors - the red-eyed, the blue or the white-eyed.
Yellow-throated Vireo
The Yellow-throated Vireo must have bad vision, since it wears little yellow spectacles! In case you haven't guessed, many of these photos are the first I have ever taken of the species, so this has been a great weekend for me. KOS was joined this weekend by a young man who went to birding camp with the American Birding Association last year on a scholarship from KOS. He is here this weekend, and still very enthusiastic. Plus, he brought along 4 or 5 friends or brothers too, so I traded birding photo stories with one of his friends all morning. It's great to see some young people interested in my favorite sport. Our speaker this evening was from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and he gave a great update on eBird and how the data collected by birders around the world is being used. Absolutely fantastic stuff. Guess I need to look into it again. All my birder friends assure me that it's easy to use, even if I don't go out very often.
Birding in the Fog
Although the weather guys predicted rain all day Saturday, none fell until the thunderstorm struck about 10 p.m. that evening. But we were all in bed, and nobody cared. Sunday morning, all the rain turned into fog, requiring us to bird by ear.
Worm Eating Warbler
One last warbler came when called, this little Worm Eating Warbler. What? Don't they all eat worms? I often shake my head at the names these birds get. This little guy opened his mouth as wide as he could and sang with all his might, but we could hardly hear anything because he sings at an extremely high pitch. Birders who have trouble hearing the higher ranges often miss many small birds.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Oxbow Wetlands Birding

Flooded Oxbow Wetlands
 When my kids were little, we always took the Interstate past the Cincinnati Airport to cross the Ohio, and reach my hometown of Harrison, Ohio, on the west side of the county.  They would ask, "Are we there yet?" and I had them watch for the lights on the power station, and the big bridge over the river. Then they knew we are almost to grandma's house. In the spring, both the Ohio and Great Miami Rivers would flood for miles and miles. I returned there Saturday for some birding at Oxbow, Inc., which was founded in 1985 to protect this area from development.
Of course, since the water was so high, we only walked along the levee above the water levels, but we found 51 species for the morning despite the flood, not including this beaver who didn't see to be  affected at all by the the high water.
Cattle Egret
A trio of Great Egrets in breeding plumage were joined by a single Cattle Egret along the grassy shore of the levee.
Black and Turkey Vultures
Both Black and Turkey Vultures soared overhead looking for something to eat. When the flood waters recede, they will feast on all the big carp that get caught in the shallows and can't escape to the river.
Double Crested Cormorant
I never saw the crests in these Cormorants until recently, and couldn't get a close enough shot of the crests on this guy. But look at him taking off from the water! Several Bald Eagles perched in trees waaayyy across the water, an Osprey circled overhead, and a Red-tailed Hawk perched by the highway. But we didn't find any warblers at all, but saw most of the swallow species from the area.
Gulls and Caspian Terns
A sandbar hosted a group of Ring-billed Gulls and Caspian Terns. Some Blue-winged Teal, Ruddy Ducks and Scaup joined them with American Coots.
Red-winged Blackbird Female
Red-winged Blackbirds called in the reeds trying to establish nesting territories. I think the females are absolutely gorgeous.
Wood Duck male
We expected to find some Wood Ducks at Oxbow, but didn't. When I got home, my daughter and the kids invited me to join them at a local park to feed the ducks, and we found this drop dead beautiful Wood Duck there. I'll have to return to Oxbow with some Cincinnati birding friends some day when the water isn't so high.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Adventures in April

Smoke from GE Appliance Park Fire
Holy Cow! April 1 may be a day for jokes and fooling people, but in Louisville, April 3 is a day of disaster! April 3, 1974, was the big tornado that came through town, flattening everything in its path. April 3, 2015 was a day of severe thunderstorms, and about 12 solid hours of rain; from 6 - 7 inches, depending where you are in the county. Every time I dropped to sleep, the phone would ring with another flash flood warning. Cars got caught under viaducts, apartments flooded, and roads were washed away entirely. We got water in the basement again, even after spending a bundle to have it waterproofed after the last flood.  At least it wasn't as deep as last time, and our terrific son-in-law came over with two water vacs to help get it out as soon as possible. The area rugs are on the patio drying. During all this downpour, something happened to start a six alarm fire in one of the buildings at GE Appliance Park, one of the largest employers in the county. You could see the smoke plume from anywhere in town. Some said it looked like a tornado while others thought it resembled the smoke from a volcano. Fortunately, the employees were off for Good Friday, but they will close the plant for at least a week while they investigate.
Purple Martins
April 4, though, the sun came out and we headed to Bernheim Forest and Arboretum with our 3-year-old grandson for Pollywogs play time. Our grandson will grow up to be a naturalist, if he keeps going the way he's started! The Salt River covered the flea market grounds with muddy brown water. Surprisingly though, the small streams at Bernheim flowed clear and within their banks.
Flicker Male (left) and Female (right)
One spot near the Education Building traditionally hosts many Flickers in the spring. That's where we ate our picnic lunch today, and I had my camera close at hand for some photos. Of course, every time I followed the calls of one bird, I couldn't find it, and the calls started again from a tree 40 feet away. I finally found a large dead sycamore limb which supports at least 5 woodpecker holes, so that's probably why they are in this area every year.
Flickers - 2 females and 1 male
Finally, three birds who sat on a nice sunny branch where I could photograph them at leisure. Lots of hopping around and calling back and forth. Looks like courting behavior, I thought. Probably two males after one female. I checked the field guide to discover that the male Flicker has black sideburns (or malar stripes) in the Eastern part of the US, so my trio is actually two female and only one male. Curious! Do the females compete for a really great stud?
Flickers - Yellow Shafted
In the Eastern US we have the Yellow-shafted Flickers, and you see yellow under their wings and tails as they fly, while the Western area has the Red-shafted Flickers. At one time, they were considered separate species, but apparently they inter-breed where territories overlap, so they are now merged into one. Most woodpeckers are red, black and white only in coloration, while Flickers are more brown with only a white rump. Flickers are often found on the ground hunting for ants and beetles to eat.
Brown Thrasher
A Mockingbird --no, make that a Brown Thrasher, serenaded us from a tree top. They only repeat their mocking of other bird calls twice, instead of three or four times like Mockingbirds.
Fox Sparrow
A Fox Sparrow scratched in the dirt under the feeders by the Ed Building, while a Field Sparrow called from the Great Meadow.
Purple Martins at Nesting Gourds
The Purple Martins have returned, taking up residence in the gourd colonies put up by Bernheim for their use.
Canada Goose on Nest
The the Canada Goose pair is on the pond nearby as usual. Every year she builds her nest on a small island that supports the pedestrian bridge over the pond. You would expect her to look for a more private location, but it doesn't seem to bother her. As she sat, she moved around small pieces of grass and sticks to make her nest just right... This was a wonderful relief from all the alerts, warnings, and bad news of the last day. BUT, the weather forecast is for more rain next week. In fact, for 5 DAYS of rain!! Yikes, what is going to happen to our basement!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Brrrr-ding in the Bluegrass

It's March 28, and officially Spring, right? Then why was it 24 degrees in Louisville when I got up this morning? What happened to the warm breezes we had a few days ago?  I know, in July I'll be complaining about the heat and humidity. Well, it's everyone's prerogative to complain about the weather. But the sun shone brightly, so Dick and I got in the toasty, solar-heated-through-the-window car and drove to Lexington. A birder there had posted on the KY bird list that she saw Common Loons and Eared Grebes in breeding plumage there yesterday! I've seen them in drab winter feathers, but not the brilliant colors of the field guide, and figured this would be a good chance to see them without going to Canada.
The Lexington water company has four reservoirs right in the middle of town. Right in the middle of a pricy neighborhood, to be exact. If I could afford to live there, I could also afford to get a new high-class spotting scope. As we walked across the causeway, one nice little bird stayed close to the road and posed for me. There must have been at least 12 of them on the lake today. We wondered why the migrating water fowl chose these lakes, rather than the big lake at the public park down the road. Better neighbors?
Actually, we saw several different behaviors. This low-to-the-water look must mean something. And the guy at the top of the blog had an itch he just had to scratch!
Then we noticed two Loons swimming beak to beak. They would dip their beaks in the water at the same time, then swim a circle around each other, dive under the water and start again. Hmmm, looks like courtship behavior to me. Cool! I guess it would still take a trip north to see them swimming around with chicks on their backs though.
At first, I couldn't figure out what this bird might be- blotchy brown and white and some odd kind of stripe on the head. Then it dawned on me that this is the Eared Grebe we were looking for! He seems to be still in the process of molting, since the field guide shows much darker body feathers on him. But look at those red eyes! He's definitely getting hormonal!
Since we were nearby, we drove on down to Jacobson Park, which is dominated by the resident geese and Mallards. This group of American Coots clustered together grazing in the grass, while one guy kept guard.
Have any of you other birders noticed more leucistic birds in the past few years? I used to think they were very rare, but now I find them on a regular basis. This little Coot is not supposed to be brown and white. I always thought birds (chickens at least) would peck a different looking bird to death. Is something in the environment doing this?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Peent - What's that Bird Saying?

While we were in California last week, Louisville received 12 inches of snow. As the plane approached the Louisville airport, we were surprised to see no snow on the ground at all. Apparently rain followed the snow and melted it all away. So it looks like spring is on the way at last! And what is a great indicator of spring? Woodcocks calling and spring peepers! Scrubby meadows are a good place to look,  but waiting until it's dark enough to suit the bird is the hard part.
The American woodcock is known by a host of colloquial names, the most common being timberdoodle. Other colorful nicknames include Labrador twister, bogsucker and mudsnipe.  Woodcocks are about the size of robins, and their plumage is an overall mottled russet or brown. Males and females are similar in appearance, although females generally average a bit heavier than males -- 7.6 ounces vs. 6.2 ounces -with the weight of each sex varying depending on the time of year. The bird's bill, which appears too long for its body, is used to probe rich soils for earthworms.  Earthworms provide about 60 percent of the bird's diet. The worms are high in fat and protein, they provide the necessary nutrients to help keep woodcock healthy and strong. They are considered game birds, although I can't imagine why anyone would want to shoot one.
Eyes are large, set well back and high on the sides of a timberdoodle's head. Naturalists have speculated that this positioning lets the bird look to all sides while it probes for food. Nostrils are located high on the bill, close to the skull. A woodcock's ears are ahead of its eyes, between the base of the bill and the eye sockets.

During the mating season, a male timberdoodle on the ground will sound a nasal, buzzing insect-like note usually described as a peent. While the peent carries several hundred yards, the much softer tuko is audible up to about 10 yards from the bird. Look around on YouTube for more videos. They are hard to take in the low evening light. Some examples of the different woodcock sounds include: the flight song -- a series of liquid, gurgling chirps -- which is sounded on the wing by a male trying to attract a mate, while a male defending his breeding territory against another male calls cac-cac-cac-cac as he flies toward his rival. While on the ground, a male peents to attract females. He next takes off to ascend 200 or 300 feet on twittering wings. Then, sounding his liquid chirps made with his wings, he spirals downward. Displays and mating occur during short periods at dawn and dusk, usually from early March to mid-May when temperatures are above freezing and winds are calm. I always wonder how the females can see him spiraling above - I certainly have trouble finding him!
Eastern Screech Owl by Thom Barnell
 When it got really dark, the group walked into the woods to look for owls. I confess, I wasn't dressed warmly enough, and wimped out to return to my car. The group was successful though and Thom Barnell got these great shots of a red phase Eastern Screech Owl.