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?