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.