Sunday, December 03, 2006

Winter Wildlife Wonderland

Winter arrived with a vengeance last week, when the temperature dropped by some 35 degrees overnight in the midst of high winds and rain. On Saturday, however, the sun came out and we decided to enjoy the spate of sunshine at Salato Wildlife Education Center. Salato is the headquarters for Kentucky's Department of Fish and Wildlife, with wonderful exhibits of Kentucky wildlife, including live white tail deer, elk, bison, turkeys, black bears, wildcats, and two Bald Eagles. The two fishing lakes attract a variety of water fowl as well. Some small birds posed for their pictures against the bright blue sky, enjoying the clear weather too. This little Song Sparrow patiently sat on a branch while I took several pictures in the classic "bird on a stick" setting. The Blue Jays were out in force, darting from tree to tree. One was high on a bare branch and we weren't too sure what it was, since we failed to bring binoculars (we won't do that again), and could see only the gray belly. The long lens on my camera seemed to hint at black markings on the face that made me think it really was a Blue Jay after all. As always, click on any picture to see a larger version.
Bluebirds are relatively new to me, so it's always a thrill to find one. I'm glad to add them to my list of birds who stay around during the winter. At first the flash of blue wings looked like an Indigo Bunting. Then he posed on a rail and we clearly saw it was a bluebird. I got brave with Photoshop too and used the cloning tool for the first time to eliminate a small branch that couldn't be cropped out. The Red-bellied Woodpeckers were making chips fly from the trees in their noisy hunt for bugs, but it is a challenge to get more than their bellies when you are standing on the ground directly under them. This one doesn't seem to have much "red' on the belly. I'll have to look up the females and see if they are paler than the males.
On the fishing lake, we saw a few ducks, and the males all had their breeding plumage. The last ducks I looked at in July were in eclipse, and very dull looking. This time the male Mallards had bright green heads. We saw a male Black Duck, and there was no risk at all of mistaking him for a female mallard. But we were most excited to see a male Wood Duck looking like a little lure painted in vivid colors to draw in the wild birds for duck hunters. They all followed us as we walked around the lake, and I was amazed at how fast they can swim! Inside the educational center are aquariums, and stuffed animals and birds on display, with samples of the various skins to be touched and identified. The main hallway has displays of hawks and other birds in flight, which most people probably didn't notice. After studying all the hawk books since September, I did pretty well at identifying them, especially since they just hung there unmoving. Talk about shooting fish in a barrel! After making my guesses, we found the printed guide identifying each of the birds, and I was encouraged to get so many of them right. Salato is well worth a visit next time you get a chance. I look forward to returning in Spring when the flowers start to bloom.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Winter Birding

The birding has been so great all Spring and Summer, with my new camera, I had forgotten the joys of birding in the Autumn and Winter. The biggest joy is that the leaves are gone and I can see the birds a lot easier! I've been searching online for a site that lists the birds that winter over in this area, to see who I am forgetting, or otherwise not recognizing, but haven't found much yet. The biggest problem is that it stays dark so much longer, Saturdays and Sundays are going the be the only time to watch the birds.
While raking leaves today, we got all the feeders refilled. I even took the screen off the kitchen window so I can use the binoculars and camera from inside without the screen making every photo look fuzzy. Some will still be fuzzy, of course, when my hand shakes, but why start with one strike against you?
As the Summer closed, I noticed that the birds no longer sang so early and so loud in the morning. As I walked to the bus before 7:00 am, it was dark, and I heard no birds at all. Since the change to Eastern Standard Time and more light in the morning, I hear more birds during the walk to the bus stop. My faithful Carolina Wrens sing and scold as I walk down the street. This Wren photo was obviously taken in the Summer, but it's the best one I have and I wanted to show it off.
Blue Jays were not in my backyard all Summer, but I saw quite a few this afternoon. I never noticed Jays migrating before, but they all seemed to heading South as we returned from Virginia. I wonder how long these will stick around.
The White Throated Sparrow blends perfectly with the leaves under the feeder both due to his coloration and the close resemblance to a House Sparrow if you don't look closely. It was good to hear him calling for Sam Peabody again.
Of course, the Dark Eyed Juncos have moved in for the winter. They are also camouflaged in the leaves. I hope to get some of the classic photos of the Northern Cardinal in the snow at my feeder. Maybe Santa will even bring me some feeders that don't have squirrel teeth marks on them!

Monday, November 06, 2006

Lewis and Clark Return

The Falls of the Ohio are always an adventure in time travel. This weekend we didn't go back millions of years but only 200 years. Nov 4-6 was the celebration for the return of the Lewis and Clark expedition to Kentucky after their three year journey through the west. Historical reenactors camped out at the George Rogers Clark cabin, with costumes, tools and activities authentic to the period. is the official website for the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, with wonderful photos and details of the trip. The sun peeked briefly through the clouds on this chill November morning, and everyone dressed warmly. Women wore shawls, fingerless gloves and many petticoats as they worked around the cabin, spinning wool or cooking over the open fire. Frontiersmen sauntered around in buckskins or coats that look like wool blankets. The blacksmith at his forge seemed to be the warmest person around. At least it wasn't raining although there were puddles to avoid. In 1806 there would have been no paved roads or parking lots at all, but lots of puddles for all travelers. A team of oxen were hitched to a wagon, and the drover used only oral commands to drive around the encampment. A group of nuns had traveled in a flatboat to their convent, and the boat was onshore for visitors to examine. I was surprised at how small it was. The cabin was hardly big enough to walk through, but provided sleeping/eating/living space for four or five nuns. The captain slept on deck. One of their biggest dangers was fire. A cooking fire was built in a lined fireplace on deck, but sparks would often blow out and set the boat on fire. Many communities along the river were founded simply because that's where they were when the boat burned. The militia groups wore various costumes, some looking like you would expect a soldier of the Napoleonic period to look like, and others wearing cloth fringes on their jackets. Boys like playing soldier, and used wooden guns to practice drilling. The older "boys", however, used their real muskets, but they too had trouble learning how to follow the commands, turn around and handle the guns in unison. One militia group brought their brass cannon, and it took a team of five to load and fire the gun each time. We may have imagined the splash of a cannonball in the river. Little girls standing nearby knew to cover their ears when the gun fired. What a wonderful activity to do with your children! I wondered how these authentic characters could exist in the 21st Century. Their beards and buckskins looked so natural that I can't imagine them wearing a suit in the board room. I have known a few people who seemed out of place in modern times. I always visualized one woman in Lexington wearing a snood around her hair, black lace fingerless gloves and a hoop skirt. Another woman was even more of a pioneer, and I imagined her in buckskins paddling a canoe down the river each time I saw her. James Alexander Thom writes historical books about this era, and was signing them at the next booth over from ours. I bought Long Knife, his story about George Rogers Clark, since I can use the background information. I started reading it on the bus this morning, and almost wept right there, just reading about the end of his days in the cabin when he lost his leg. I hope there will be a flashback to some happier times, but fear that happiness was something George Rogers Clark saw little of in his life.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Ohio Valley Autumn

Since our return from a successful birding trip to Virginia, we haven't had a lot of luck in our birding endeavors. A trip to the Audubon Birding Trail in Western Kentucky took us to the Sloughs WMA near Henderson. The Sloughs are too wet to raise a good crop, but crops are planted in some of the fields to help attract birds. Small, rather rickety, observation platforms were built along the country roads. Killdeers flashed their white undersides constantly as they crisscrossed the fields around us. Hundreds of Redwinged Blackbirds called from the leaves. The brochure mentioned all the ducks that winter here, but we must have been too early and saw no ducks at all. A pair of Northern Harriers swooped low to the ground, and so fast that we couldn't get any pictures at all. I did get a nice shot of my first Lesser Yellowlegs, and saw, but didn't photograph a few American Coots. We followed a gravel road back into the Sloughs thinking to find deeper water and more birds away from the road. At times the road itself became flooded, and we watched carefully to avoid getting stuck in the mud when turning around to drive out. We saw many warblers in the trees, but the yellow-green of the fall foliage was perfect camouflage for the greenish yellow of the warblers, and it was hard to find them even with binoculars, let alone a camera. Downy woodpeckers abounded however. One area had mature trees growing in a flooded field. We wondered why the trees would grow so big in such a wet environment. As we walked along, we found that the water was the result of a beaver dam. Many trees were downed by the beavers, and at one point we saw a beaver freeway - a path from one pool to the other about 12 inches wide, with a rest area and a little beaver scat along it. Some bird built a large stick nest visible in the bare branches of a tree in the beaver pond. Might it be an osprey nest? The Sloughs themselves didn't look deep enough to have much in the way of fishing, but we don't know how far this was from the river itself. This fall has had an unusual amount of rain, both here in the Ohio Valley and upstream. The gates in the dam have been opened since September, and by mid-October, the gates were lifted entirely out, and water was pouring over the walls of the dam itself. Much too rough for birds, other than a few gulls coming down from the Great Lakes for the winter. Even though the river was rough, the sun shining on the foliage looks like flame. It's hard to decide whether to photograph the entire tree, a few individual bright leaves, or something in between. At least the leaves don't fly away as you focus on them!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Bird Herding

One of my favorite old video clips from the Internet is about cat herding. The "catboys" are on horseback trying to drive a herd of domestic felines to market. The cats resist the efforts to be forced in the desired direction, as cats do. If one becomes injured the herder carries it on his saddle, but of course, gets scratched in the face for his efforts. I regard cat herding as some great and difficult effort, the purpose of which isn't really understood by anyone else, but which has great meaning to the herder. The first rule of Birding Ethics is not to disturb the bird. Their lives are hard enough without being disrupted by people. The problem is learning how close you can come for observation and photographing without disturbing them. Are they disturbed if they walk away or only if they actually fly off? What if that was their next task for the day anyway? How can a person tell? While we were in Virginia, we ran into a bit of that with the shore birds. The Willetts and little Sandpipers, would run back and forth on the beach as the waves advanced and receded. As we walked along behind them, they calmly moved on down the shore as if it were part of their original plan anyway. They didn't seem upset or disturbed in any way. As long as we walked in their direction, they simply walked faster than we did. Groups of Laughing Gulls did the same thing. They just didn't care that we were on their territory. I had seen some Willetts at the Falls of the Ohio last summer when they blew in on a storm, and knew their wings displayed a distinct black and white pattern that was the best way to identify them. I thought the larger birds we saw were Willetts, but so many of the shore birds resemble each other, I wanted to see them flying to be sure, and to show the wing pattern to Dick. So I asked him to commit the birding sin of making them take flight. Run, make noises, I said, so we can see their wings. Well, he tried, but the more he chased the faster they walked. I used to know some Tennessee Walking Horses on a 4H drill team that were the same way. When they were supposed to trot, they just walked faster. In a short time, we started laughing at the thought and sight of a grown man chasing these small birds and being out-paced by them! Eventually, they got tired of the game and flew off down the beach, maybe 20 feet or so, but we did get to see the wing pattern. And we resolved never to be bird herders again.

Monday, October 09, 2006

I Married a Beech Tree

We have long known that women go through a Change of Life when they reach a certain age. Traditionally, we expect them to become moody, burst into uncontrollable crying jags and suffer hot flashes and sleepless nights. Men in our society also go through a change of life. We expect them to change jobs to something they view as more fulfilling, buy a sports car, or take up with some sweet young thing to hold on to their youthful image of themselves. My husband has always been a little nutty, but until this weekend, I didn't realize what kind of nut he was. Here is my confession: I married a Beech Tree. Yes, under the magic of the full moon, he has put down roots at Bernheim Forest and lets his branches sway in the wind. He won't come into the kitchen any more because he is afraid of knives marking his bark. He is very proud that he grows in rich soil, but mourns the loss of his ancestors to the pioneers as they cleared the forest for their farms. I have absolutely forbidden him to let any pigs or deer into the house searching for beechnuts. He no longer asks for a peanut butter sandwich, but says "beechnut butter" is healthier. Some of his friends at Bernheim also changed into trees over the weekend, but I understand that they are devolving back into their human, two-legged selves. I guess as these things go, it could be worse. After all, he didn't mind when the cats played in his leaves on the porch, and raked and vacuumed after himself. But it is hard getting him into a car without closing the door on his roots.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Hawk Watching

Raptors are among my favorite birds to watch. They are regal and so graceful as they soar through the air. We make a trip each January to Western Kentucky to see the Bald Eagles who winter on Kentucky Lake. This is how I learned to use binoculars to find a football shape in the trees that might be an eagle. The State Park which organizes the weekend usually has a raptor rehab program bring in other birds for us to admire as well. At the Falls of the Ohio, I always watch for the Ospreys, Peregrine Falcons, and, of course, the Vultures. At Kiptopeke State Park in Virginia, however, they take their hawk watching very seriously during the fall migration. On the elevated platform, at least one person is on duty each day, and he is joined by any birders who come by, whether they are experts or amateurs like us. One kind expert even explained to us how she can tell the difference between a Sharp Shinned Hawk and a Coopers Hawk at 5 miles and 1,000 feet! It was truly amazing to see kettles of these birds soaring in the air and start counting how many could be seen at one time. The watchers cheered when clouds started rolling in because it gave a "sky-mark" to help locate the birds. I don't think they can collect any sort of Worker's Comp for the stiff neck they must have at the end of the day. We learned to bring a small folding camp seat next time we try this. The highlight of our hawking was the day Joe captured a Red-tailed Hawk who required a size 7E band (really big, he said) and brought her over to the platform for us. Just look at the size of her legs, especially compared to some of the warblers who have legs smaller than toothpicks! What a great opportunity to see the variety of feathers on this magnificent bird's wings and head, and the subtle color variations. Now I know where the phrase about having one's "feathers ruffled" comes from. This was one angry bird who never took her eyes off Joe. Even though she has some film on her eye, Joe said she could see OK, and she didn't hesitate a bit to fly away from us as fast as she could when he released her. Just click on any picture to enlarge it. But the best part was finding and watching raptors on our own, a little closer and easier to see. The Eastern Shore NWR had a female Kestral who claimed the top branch of a cedar tree as her perch, just outside their observation room. For two days, she would leave to catch a juicy dragon fly, then resume her perch to eat it. By the time I went for my camera and set it up, she left and didn't come back. We then drove down a country road among the farms, and saw more Kestrals just floating in the strong head wind, and a Northern Harrier who skimmed only a foot or two above the crops. We recognized the white spot on his rump. Of course, Ospreys are always my favorites and we saw them everywhere. publishes the statistics for the hawks observed in migration. In the last five days alone at Kiptopeke, they counted 539 Ospreys and 494 Kestrals!

Monday, October 02, 2006

Birding Heaven on the Eastern Shore

Last week was a new vacation adventure spent birding and staying in an RV at Kiptopeke State Park on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Kiptopeke is at the southern tip of the Delmarva peninsula on Chesapeake Bay, and is the jump off point for migrating birds to cross the Bay on their way south. The Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory sponsors a bird banding station and hawk watch at the park and we participated in many birding activities we would never have experienced otherwise. Nearby is the Eastern Shore NWR and a few hours up the road is Chincoteague NWR. I also got to put my new telescopic camera lens to the test, and am quite pleased with it overall. Especially when I found that I DO NOT have to put it on a tripod all the time to get good pictures! The banding station uses mist nets hung at a low level and primarily catches small birds, including many warblers. This was great for me, since I have trouble seeing small warblers in the trees at all, let alone finding them in binoculars or a camera lens. After the birds were removed from the netting, Jethro Runco identified them, then ran through a series of measurements which were recorded and will be sent for correlation with other banding stations around the country. Jethro's blog gives a daily update with photos of the birds found. Each bird has its wings and tail measured. Then he blows their feathers around the wishbone to see how much fat has accumulated to help the bird during migration. Some water drops on the back of the head help to determine the skull's ossification, and thus the age of the bird. Then the bird is slipped into a tube to be weighed. Many we saw weighed less than half an ounce. Jethro says they mostly get young birds who haven't made the trip before. They fly east, then when they see the Atlantic Ocean turn south to avoid flying off the end of the world. Kiptopeke is a chance to rest and chow down before making the trip across the Bay. Weather determines how many birds will be banded on a given day. If it's stormy or windy, they all hide until it clears up again. We talked to birders of all ages, including this young fellow who was delighted to hold his first wild bird. Actually, Dick and I were also entranced to hold a small warm creature that weighed next to nothing before returning it to the wild. One older woman was apparently involved in the original banding effort. She cradled a small warbler, and when turned on its back, it lay quietly until she moved her hand around enough that it could tell which way was up and fly away. How can you not squash those little bitty things in your hands, I asked. The space between your index and middle finger is big enough to confine them. The bigger problem is letting them escape before you are ready. I'll have more stories and photos to share soon.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Fog on Little Cat Feet

The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on. Carl Sandburg
In the Ohio River Valley, fog can limit itself to hovering over the water only, or covering all the roads until you reach the river itself. Last weekend, only the river was hidden in the fog.

Walking along the bank, I knew the birds were all there, but even the Killdeers were silent and invisible. A fisherman, not to be stopped by a little fog, had built a small campfire along the shore. I doubt he was cold, but the smell of wood smoke added a pioneer touch to the air - the scent of smoke meant that people were nearby, though unseen. The water lapped softly along the muddy bank, and I listened to it without competition from other noises. All my senses seemed to be narrowed, focused to the small area visible in the fog. A jet went overhead, its roar muffled, in another unreachable world from my land of fog. As time passed, the fog lifted slightly, and I could see a little farther along the shore. Had I stood there long enough, the entire bend would have come in to sight. Appearing silently out of the clouds, an Osprey glided to the top branch of a dead tree. When you can't see the water, fishing is pretty useless, so he decided to just take a rest. Of course, my telephoto lens was back in the car, so I took a few photos and crossed my fingers. I doubt the lens would have made much difference. If you didn't know this was an Osprey already, you probably would not recognize it. But what can you do in the fog....

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Long Distance Photos

The problem with bird photography at the Falls of the Ohio is the distance involved. The best shore birds are found about half a mile across the river, in the quiet water along a long stretch of the dam's wall. I finally ordered a telephoto lens to go with my camera, and couldn't wait to try it out, even though the day was cloudy and threatening rain all morning. For this distance, I guess it's OK, since these Herons look about the way they look through the scope. I'd need a truck to hold a lens long enough to get close ups from this distance!

I carried the tripod mounted camera down along the path, just to see how sharp I could get closer subjects. My tripod sat in the corner for a long time, and needs another good treatment with WD-40 to make it swivel easier before we go to Chesapeake Bay in a few weeks. Nuthatches can be hard to see with your eye at all, and even harder to find in a camera lens, being little birds that move around a lot. Here's a great shot of the nuthatch in its typical upside down position. Notice how this little guy looks more blue than gray. The nuthatch at my feeder (I didn't know they even ate sunflower seeds) will land on the roof, swing upside down, then hang down to grab a seed and fly away with it. My Panasonic Lumix camera has a monitor that comes out and swivels around from the back of the camera, so I could compose and focus, even when the bird was at an awkward angle for a camera on a tripod to point at. Ah, but it's tough to get old. I have to take my bifocals off to see the monitor clearly at all.

I'll have to take a self-portrait of the Dennis Birdwatchers, decorated with hats, binoculars, spotting scope, tripods and cameras. Dick is using the Olympus point and click camera and has lots of fun working with the digital pictures of his own. Certainly, that camera takes a lot less muscle on vacation. Maybe I'll let him be in charge of carrying the spotting scope on its tripod! Our photography hikes may be shorter than those for just the watching, with all this equipment to cart around. I guess that's a choice you have to make. What is more important, the watching or the photos? If you don't take the camera though, Murphy's Law guarantees you will have a perfect opportunity for the perfect shot.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A Walk on the Wild Side

My husband volunteers at Bernheim Forest near Louisville, and relishes his time spent there, as I do my time at the Falls of the Ohio. Sunday, several of the volunteers went on a hike, and I decided to join them. I should have realized I was in over my head when the group consisted of five men in jeans, hiking boots, and backpacks, carrying walking sticks. I, on the other hand, wore shorts, sneakers, binoculars and camera, and a fanny pack. The leader said we would loop around and should be back in about three hours. OK, I thought, I should be able to do that, and off we went. We walked down overgrown fire roads through the forest and down into the creek bed. The men were all very knowledgeable about the Forest and all things in it. We noticed small things like oak galls and brightly colored mushrooms against the leaves on the forest floor. Tiny spiders tried to catch us in their webs across the trail. I was glad to let the men take the point. As we descended from the ridge top, we noticed the change in trees from oaks, primarily, to beech and maple, then sycamores. The stones of the creek were smooth, damp and slippery. Again, we found small toads, skinks, and delicate mosses and worts growing green in the dampness. Although there was little water that day, you could tell from the leaves caught in the high tree branches that floods would quickly fill the entire valley when it stormed. With some searching, we found three of the elusive Cardinal flowers. The sides of the creek valley were lined in limestone cliffs, worn and crevassed with the passage of time and water. At times, huge boulders had fallen to the bottom, and or there were gaps between the cliffs for explorers and deer to descend to the water. A peculiar kind of rock with vertical markings was some sort of petrified wood or plant, they said. I took some samples for our geologist to examine. Around a bend, the road moved towards several large fields that had been recently mowed. Was the large pile of bird feathers the remains of some raptors' breakfast, or had a bird been caught by the bush hog and cut to pieces? A turtle shell with a hole looked like it was victim to the dreaded bush hog. The field, however, held the greatest wealth and variety of life, with butterflies and other insects, wildflowers and small trees and shrubs with ripening berries. One of our hikers was delighted to finally see the actual berries on a hackberry tree for the first time. We saw an insect that was about the size and shape of a wasp, a black abdomen with white stripes, and wings the most iridescent navy blue I've ever seen. Of course, by the time I got the camera focused, it flew away, but some of the butterflies were much more co-operative. Then reality struck. Not rain, although the barrage of ordnance from nearby Fort Knox sounded like thunder all morning, but distance was the enemy. We had spent our three hours, and the leader announced that from this point it was another two miles or more, UPHILL, back to our cars. Not only that, but the fire road we took was in excellent condition with lots of sharp gravel to poke holes into my aching feet. We had taken a bug spray break earlier in the woods, but were unprepared for the bugs of the field -- chiggers and something that didn't show up until two days later, when both of us developed itchy, almost rash-like bumps all over legs and feet, and even under our shoes which should not have been exposed at all! Living in "civilization", we are happy to return to nature, and enjoy its beauties, but we forget the uncomfortable sides of nature. I thought how it must have been for the pioneers, trudging through the forest, without a mowed fire road to follow. Climbing up each hill and sliding down each valley, without a plastic bottle of water to drink from, or a granola bar for energy. We might have gotten turned around sometimes, but at the top of the hill, we could still call the visitor's center on a cell phone. The pioneers had only themselves to depend on. And they had no bug spray at all....

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Flowing River of Life

A flowing river changes the land through which it flows. Sometimes it brings soil to enrich the farmer's fields, enabling the development of civilization itself. Sometimes it races out of its banks to destroy those fields and the people who depend on them. Around Louisville, people still talk about the 1937 flood and point to the high water marks on the third floor of many buildings. Where the river turns around a bend, it can wash away the banks by several feet each year, and man's efforts to control the river aren't always successful, because the river just starts flowing around the obstacle erected to stop it. I have been impressed by the tenacity of the trees growing next to the river. The trees root where ever the river brings enough silt for a seed to take hold. They continue growing whether the water is high or low around those roots. Eventually, the water will wash away enough soil the tree will tumble into the next flood, ending up somewhere downstream as driftwood. The driftwood itself is part of the environment, giving homes to insects, birds and animals. Trees are able to lose the soil around their roots, and the core of their trunks altogether, and still survive.
Advice from a River...Go with the flow... Immerse yourself in nature...Slow down and meander....Go around the obstacles...Be thoughtful of those downstream...Stay current...The beauty is in the journey!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Ending of Summer

When I was a child, the summer seemed endless, beginning officially on Memorial Day, and continuing through at least mid-September. September certainly seemed as hot as July sitting in un-air conditioned classrooms all day. Now, however, I know that summer is effectively ended by the Fourth of July, when school supplies go on sale everywhere. Classes actually start on August 15 here, and a little earlier in nearby counties. In May and June, I was awakened each morning by an incredibly LOUD chorus of birds. Yes, the window was open, but they began singing by 5:00 every day. Why would a bird feel compelled to defend its nesting territory when it's too dark for any invader to be a risk? After the Summer Solstice, I notice that the chorus is down to a few faithful singers - my Carolina wren, some robins, and maybe a song sparrow. The loud chorus is now made of cicadas, morning, noon and night. On a hike at the Falls of the Ohio last Saturday, we noticed a generous layer of cottonwood leaves on the trail. The sycamore leaves are starting to fall too, and it smells like autumn when you stand under them. I even saw a V of Canadian geese flying across downtown one morning this week. Many geese seem to spend the entire year along the Ohio Valley. They certainly breed here. So it's hard to say whether flocks of geese are actually migrating, or just going to greener pastures for grazing. But the sound of honkers in the sky always sounds like autumn to me. My children (now ages 22 and 25) have even remarked on how short the summers are now. I guess that's just part of growing up. Or is it growing old? It's a good thing Autumn is my favorite season, isn't it?

Friday, August 04, 2006

Determination Has a Fluffy Tail

Every birder I know, every bird web site I read, wails about squirrels and how they eat up all the feed put out for the birds. Personally, I admire squirrels as very clever, determined creatures (except for the ones that used to live in my attic, of course). I have one feeder in the middle of the open yard with a baffle on the pole, which the squirrels actually don't try to climb. Why should they bother? The birds are always pushing sunflower seed husks to the ground, including enough with the seed still in it to keep the squirrels happy with no effort expended. Our other feeder hangs from a tree, and over the years the squirrels have given us lots of laughs as they attack it. The young squirrels take the direct approach - jump at it, and then fall to the ground. We know they are growing up when they stop this brute force attack and start using their little rodent brains.

The squirrels are wary of anyone coming in the yard, so I have to take pictures of them through the porch screens, and they tend to come out fuzzy. It takes great skill and determination to reach down from the top of the feeder, around the baffle, until the squirrel swings under it all together. Holding on to the perches with three feet while reaching in with one paw to grab a seed certainly receives my applause. Any creature willing to work this hard deserves any seeds he can get.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Hummingbirds, Hmmm?

Look! Out in the yard! Is it a butterfly? Is it a giant bumble bee? Is it a (gasp) hummingbird, at long last? No matter how early in the spring hummingbirds arrive in our area, we never see one until late July, when the butterfly bushes start to bloom. Even then, actually seeing a hummingbird is a matter of luck, despite all the red flowers we planted and the various feeders. Getting a photo of one is even trickier. Here is the one photo I managed to take. The quality is not very good. It looks kind of fuzzy and out of focus. That might be caused by shaking hands when releasing the shutter, bad focus since I was in a hurry lest the bird fly away, or dirty windows between camera and bird. How to cure these problems, she asks herself? And where to set up a camera to get a good shot without any of these issues?

First, wash the windows in the kitchen door, in case dirty glass is the actual problem. Then put the camera on a tripod and aim it at the feeder and focus it before any birds come. So far so good. However, in the afternoon, the windows reflect the afternoon light, tending to wash out any photo taken through the window. If I move the glass aside, the screen still makes for fuzzy pictures. Also, these windows aren't one way glass, and when I rise to turn the camera on as a hummer approaches the feeder, they see me move, and dart away. Would a shutter release cable help? But the waiting until a bird comes is the hardest part! How do those professional photographers wait around for hours until the bird comes to them? I'll keep trying. They won't be leaving for several weeks yet, so there still may be hope for me to get a clear shot.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Life is Like a Spider Web

Forest Gump was famous for his Mama saying, "Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you will get." That's true in many ways, but I also think life is like a spider web. You never know when you will run into it. Spider webs tend to show up in your path unexpectedly. You go out the back door, hurrying to the car, and run into a face full of invisible spider web. Although you brush and rub at it, there is still one little thread tickling your face that you can't find. You think you are in control of your life, but webs happen, no matter how much you plan. Spiders build them that way to catch the unwary bug, or hiker. And you don't know what other creatures will be caught in the web that catches you. Of course, the spider can't make breakfast of a hiker, but you will certainly know you have crossed paths. So what if a blundering person knocks down a whole night's work? The spider doesn't give up. She just starts spinning again. Life is telling us, don't be so full of yourself. There are lots of things going on all the time that you could learn from. There are people and activities you should get involved with. Just look around.

When you finally slow down enough to look at them, spider webs are amazingly beautiful and intricate. Almost invisible in regular light, when bejeweled with morning dew, they out sparkle diamonds. One spider builds only the minimum of strands, while another weaves a tight net. Is this determined by the species? One long strand can stretch across great distances... well, to a spider they must be great. Certainly they are much longer than the spider herself. Does a young spider spinning its first web tremble in fear at the leap required to fasten that first strand across the emptiness? Does the older spider want to downsize, now that she is facing retirement? Can I have the courage and determination of the spider when something knocks me down, again?

Focusing a camera on a spider web takes a lot of concentration. The photographer moves around, trying to catch the light shining off the dew in just the right way. The rest of your group may call, "Come on already." Be careful though. Watch the web so you don't knock it down in trying to preserve its beauty for ever. I have lots of pictures that did not focus on the web successfully, but either before it or behind it. Life is like that. It's hard to know what is important and where to spend your efforts. Knowing full well that in a while, it probably won't make a difference anyway. After all, life is just a spider web.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Value of Vultures

To many people, I am sure the vulture is not a bird to be appreciated. After all, they eat carrion. They are a sign of death and decay. I must differ with this, and say that vultures are truly marvelous birds.

Vultures are intelligent birds. At a raptor show, the handler would carry in the owls and hawks. However, she walked in being followed by a young Black Vulture which followed her like a puppy. It had been impressed by people when it hatched and couldn't be released into the wild, but this bird learned new things twice as fast as any other bird they worked with she said. These Black Vultures found a red ball washed up on the river bank, and spent a wonderful morning playing with it. First one would peck at it, then jump back when it moved. Then another would push it back towards the rest. The Vulture Word Cup we called it. A Turkey Vulture is most efficient at flying. In the morning, they wait until the sun warms the surrounding area (the rocks at the Falls of the Ohio), and when the thermals start to rise, they all take off at once--a "kettle" of vultures on the wing. A Turkey Vulture only has to tip its wings a bit to change directions and can be easily recognized midair by the "V" position of its wings and the fact that you rarely see it flap. Under the proper conditions, a Turkey Vulture can soar for up to six hours without flapping its wings. The Turkey Vulture Society website has amazing facts about this bird. Although it is constantly exposed to the bacteria associated with decaying meat, the vulture doesn't get sick from it. Its head has few feathers and it will toast itself in the sun to destroy anything it might have picked up. We saw one on the ledge of the 32nd floor in our office building, calming holding its wings outspread to enjoy the sun and breeze from this lofty perch. Its urine is strong enough to kill any bacteria on its legs. The acid in its stomach will destroy many organisms that would kill another animal if ingested. If not for Vultures, we would be up to our elbows in carcasses! Yet for all the road kill along the highway, I've not seen many vultures who got hit by a car from stopping for a little fast food.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Birding at the Zoo

Saturday I walked around at the Falls of the Ohio to see what birds were out and about. The Corps of Engineers had opened all the gates in the dam, so the river was full and rushing. The water birds all went someplace else to look for breakfast. On the land though, a Song Sparrow and an Indigo Bunting politely sat in dead branches singing their hearts out. A Flicker was holding on to the underside of a branch looking for bugs, before giving it up and moving to the top again. All in all, a pleasant morning, except for the birders' maxim:
If you don't have your camera, you are bound to see some good birds and wish you had it.
Our family traditionally goes to the Louisville Zoo on at least one holiday, and today the kids and I went. You don't have to go out into the woods to see some birds and get some great photos. In fact, it's easier at the Zoo, because the birds either can't fly off, or aren't interested in hiding from you in the first place! The zookeeper for the Lorikeets is a friend of my daughter's and a most enthusiastic birder! After the female birds had their fill of nectar from the visitors, he blew a whistle and they all went back inside the building. Then he warned us about the males about to be released. "They will fly out in a group, from one side of the enclosure to another, perhaps a couple of times. If you don't think it sounds like fun to have 26 parrots flying at you, stand back, or duck down if they get too close." The birds did exactly as predicted! I love having a bird that likes to be photographed.

The wild ducks and geese know a good thing when they see it, and take full advantage of the free feed and safe nesting areas at the Zoo. One goose gave a loud squawk and jumped up in the lake, then we saw a turtle come up from beneath it with a big grin on his face. Nothing like goosing a goose, he said. We saw the standard Mallards, and some other smaller ducks with red eyes and a white throat. I think these are Wood Ducks in their non-breeding plummage. Once I saw a comment that the only way to tell what a brown duck is is to watch who she hangs out with. That may work sometimes, but not today. We saw brown ducks that could have been female Mallards, or maybe female Wood Ducks, or maybe Black Ducks? It didn't have an orange bill like the mallard. They might have been juveniles of those species, or males in non-breeding plummage. (Virtual head shaking) Do male ducks loose their fancy feathers once the breeding season is over?

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Look Alikes or Same Birds?

I like watching and identifying big birds because I can see their characteristics easily. Those DLBs (Darn Little Birds) are another story though. At Muscatatuck NWR on Memorial Day, a small bird landed in a tree within view of my camera, so I took some pictures of it. I must confess, I was concentrating more on focusing the camera than observing the bird closely. After all, you can always go back again and look at the picture if you aren't sure what the bird is, right? There was a nest nearby, in the eaves of the latrine building. Both bird and nest were close to a lake and the deciduous woods of the Reserve. As I researched this bird, I'm not sure if it is an Eastern Phoebe or an Eastern Woods Pee-wee. In fact, I'm not sure if these two photos are really the same bird or not, due to the light differences, although both were taken within 3 feet of each other. The little top knot on the head is about the same and both seem have a wing bar. However, the bill on one looks dark, while the bill on the other looks yellow on the bottom. My research says the dark billed Phoebe has weaker wing bars and tends to wag its tail, but I didn't notice the bird's behavior as I tried to focus on it for a good shot.

One source says the Phoebe often nests in or around human habitations, building mud and grass nests under the eaves of buildings. The Pee-wee builds a nest on a horizontal limb well out from a trunk in a living tree. If it had sung, I could have recognized the song, but I didn't hear anything that day. Therefore, if the nest belongs to the bird I saw, I'd guess it's the Phoebe.

Second guessing on a bird's identity can drive you crazy. However, it is also dangerous to go with the first bird you see in the book that looks kind of like the one you saw. One time I had to ask a local expert about a picture, and he confidently said it was a mocking bird. That's what I thought the first time, in fact, but the longer I worked with it, the less confident I was. Will I ever have that confidence level? There are so many pieces to look at - color, lighting, stripes, legs, song. How can I get those birds to pose nicely and sing for me at the same time? Settle down there, girl, don't get all hyper. Remember, you are doing this for the fun of it, right? Don't get so wrapped up that you forget that part. This isn't a contest, and no one will give you a bad grade if you get something wrong. Every time you try to make a tough identification, you learn something else, and that alone is worthwhile. Take a deep breath and move on to the next bird.