Saturday, November 24, 2007

Indiana Eagles

"Oh, what a beautiful morning," we thought as we drove over the Ohio River into Indiana for another birding trip with the Beckham Bird Club. The sunrise shone pink behind our shoulders, while the full moon set behind the Kennedy Bridge. My camera, unfortunately, was in its case in the back of the car, so there are no pictures. With such a great start, we expected a cool but sunny day, and boy, what a mistake that was! The clouds only broke once, and the temperature never got warm enough to be pleasantly brisk. Giant frost crystals awaited us at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge when we arrived, but we were not deterred and drove off to see the birds.
At our first stop we saw Canadian Geese and Mallards swimming in the pools between ice sheets, a Great Blue Heron trying to stay warm in the brush nearby, and two Wilsons's Snipes. The Killdeer slipped around trying to walk on the ice. A Harrier flew overhead then on to the next small lake. Soon, a larger bird came over, and it was a Bald Eagle, which circled the lake then landed in a tree to survey the neighborhood. Closeups indicated that this bird had just recently acquired its white feathers, as we could see remnants of brown feathers on his head and the tip of his tail. He posed in the tree while we all took a look with the scopes, then moved on. The Blue Heron directly under the Eagle kept his head pointing straight up to keep a close eye on this big guy.
The next lake didn't offer much for the water birds, since there wasn't as much water as we had seen there before. In addition to the Canadian Geese, we saw a few Black Ducks, some Green-winged Teal, and a Pintail Duck - a life addition for me. A Goose slid on the ice and landed on her tail, just as I would have while walking on ice. Two Red-Shoulder Hawks perched in trees across the lake, and we tried to pish some smaller birds in with little luck.
River Otters have been released at Muscatatuck, and we found a family of five in one of the more remote lakes. At first, they looked like fish in the water, until we put the scope on them, which was hard considering how quickly they swam. An old beaver lodge had been renovated for the Otter family, and everyone came out to welcome the newcomers.
After lunch, the group moved to Hardy Lake State Park, which I had not visited before. Right away we saw a lone Loon (my first) out on the lake, and two Bald Eagles flying overhead. Some American Coots patrolled the edge of the lake. Horned Grebes and three Common Mergansers joined them, also increasing my lifetime list. The lake was large enough that we lost sight of several birds and never did identify them successfully. A Large Eared Owl had been sighted in the woods in other years, and Blue Jays called loudly the entire time we walked there. Might the owl still be around? We tried to call one down with a recording, and although we found no owls, the Jays finally got quiet. Hark! Is that a Crane calling? Quickly scanning the sky with binoculars, we found a long V of Sandhill Cranes flying over the lake and out of sight. Tom had seen a flock at Brownstown, which landed and left again in a few minutes, so this was a bonus for the day.
By the end of the afternoon, many of us were tired, cold and thinking about heading home, when both Bald Eagles came right towards us. One landed in a tree, while the other began to swoop and dive, obviously going for a fish. Something was wrong with my camera settings, and I couldn't get any clear shots, although the Eagle repeated his actions for me to try again. The Loon started singing its plaintive song, and the cold, dreary day became perfect. Then I remembered the movie setting. Just click to see if the Eagle finally catches the fish before it flies off. Overall, the leader announced, we saw 60 different species during the trip- a pretty good total for a cold gray day in Indiana.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Purposeful Birding

Birding is an adventure. I walk around and see what I can see. If a more experienced birder is along, I get to see more birds that I would otherwise have missed. When you go out looking for a particular kind of bird, however, you may be in for a disappointment.

Birding Rule #23 - the birds haven't read the schedule of when they are supposed to be at a particular location.

Last Saturday we drove to Brownstown, IN, to look for Sandhill Cranes in the fields along the river bottom. In other years, thousands of Cranes stopped here on their way south. This year has been very dry, though, and there was not ONE Crane to be seen anywhere. We saw a few Snow Geese, and a Snipe (which I always thought was a lie to tell a tenderfoot outdoors), some Kingfish, and lots of Killdeer. The Pine Siskin moved around too fast for me to actually spot. The harvested fields were full of Meadow Larks, and we found several Red Tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers. The male Harrier perched on a fence post far away, and even the experts weren't sure what it was. One other person saw him wearing white Cleopatra makeup around his eyes - a new field mark that I didn't know before. The white rump doesn't show when they aren't flying. The afternoon was pleasant, the sunset was breathtaking, and I enjoy meeting other birders with the Beckham Bird Club, so I consider the day successful even though we saw no Cranes. The birds that just pop up unexpectedly are the most rewarding to me. Yesterday it was windy along the river at the Falls, so I took a birding walk in another location. There are a couple of small beaver dams along this creek, and I was hoping to see some ducks on them. Sorry, no ducks, but I did see an industrious little Downey Woodpecker. When I got home and sorted through the pictures on my camera, I noticed a mass exodus of small birds in the backyard, followed by a Cooper's Hawk landing right outside the window. Finding no lunch, he flew into a nearby pine tree, preened a bit, then took off for another yard. See, this is what I mean. I get more excited about a bird that I see because I was at the right place at the right time, than one that everyone is looking for. This is the adventure. And by the way, while driving along the Interstate yesterday afternoon, I saw a V of large birds with long necks and long legs--the elusive Sandhill Cranes came to me, but it's hard to track them when driving 65 mph in the opposite direction. Adventure comes unexpectedly!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Golden Fall Days

In only a few weeks, I will be looking at these pictures, fondly remembering the warm days of Autumn. When the trees are bare, and the sun hides behind the clouds, this day when the leaves fluttered gold and scarlet will make me sigh wistfully. We joined the Beckham Bird Club on a birding trip to Charlestown State Park in Indiana, then drove up Utica Pike along the river to an old river town with no grocery store and no gas stations. What do you do with a quarry when you can't quarry any more rocks from it? Build houses. A very imaginative developer has started a housing project named Quarry Bluff, using an old rock quarry, complete with lake, to build rather pricey houses inside the pit. The lake was pristine, but the view was limited to the surrounding rock walls. Our first stops in the park had no birds at all, and we started trying to remember the lowest count for a Beckham trip - nine someone said - thinking that we might top it today. When we drove down to the Ohio River, though, we hit the jackpot in the bottom meadows. All the goldenrods had turned to brownrods but so had the Gold Finches, wearing their drabber winter colors instead of the bright gold of summer. The Bluebirds were still as blue as the deep autumn sky, and we were serenaded by the original Jazz Singer - a syncopated White Throated Sparrow, accompanied by his backup group, the Song Sparrows. Phoebe bobbed in time to the music and flocks of Robins rocked in the treetops. A Towhee stopped in to see what all the fuss was about, and added his two cents worth to the song. Several deer ran into the woods ahead of us, and a flock of Wild Turkeys crossed the road (you know why, don't you?). The best part of the morning was the Red Tailed Hawk that soared above, turning to show off his red tail. What a thrill! I have pictures of Ospreys, Peregines and Bald Eagles in flight, but until now, nothing for the Red Tail. When we returned to Jeffersonville for lunch, we strolled along the river admiring the houses with a river view, and debating whether we would ever want to/afford to live in something like that. Under the old Big Four Bridge, better known as the nesting site for Louisville's Peregrine Falcon family, we saw some Mallards taking a nap in the shade after chowing down on the corn scattered for them on the sidewalk. Once again, I was awed by the beauty of this bird, which is so common we often take it for granted. Oh, it's just another Mallard. Birding teaches me not to take anything for granted. Every bird, and every person, can be beautiful if you just stop to look.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

More than Just 'Bama Birds

On every birding walk or trip, I enjoy the non-feathered parts of nature too, and Mobile Bay abounds in wildlife. The alligators attracted our attention immediately. On our first trip to a boardwalk along the edge of the bay, we saw a floating log that turned out to be an alligator at least 10 feet long. Sometimes only it's nose and eyes appeared, while minutes later you could see the entire length of its rough, scaly back. It didn't appear to be hunting anything in particular that we noticed, but as it got closer and heard us talking, it decided the neighborhood was too crowded, then simply sank down and disappeared. In the town of Daphne, a creek flows into the bay in an area known as Alligator Alley, where the alligators could climb up into the hotel parking lot if they wished. This one was perhaps 6 feet long. A few days later, we found the baby, only about 12 inches long, at the Daphne park. A friend lost his daughter in an alligator attack, so we are very careful when they are around.
Insects were far more numerous. The Gulf Fritillary butterfly floated from one flower to another at every stop. Yes, I did have to search to find out how to spell that name! The dragonflies were truly enormous though. I kept saying, "There's a hummingbird" and it was a dragonfly every time. We never did see any hummingbirds. The dragonflies must have been preparing for something, since they never did land and just sit like they do in Kentucky, so I was unable to take any photos of them. We won't even talk about the mosquitos.
Baldwin County, Alabama, has more species of carnivorous Pitcher plants, the guides told us, than anywhere else. Pitcher plants grow in sunny, damp bogs, thriving in poor soil. Prescribed fires keep trees and shrubs from growing large enough to shade out these rare plants. Flies and other insects are attracted to the scent, land on the lip and slide in, but they can't fly out, and are slowly digested by the plant. I always thought only tropical rain forests would have carnivorous plants, not Alabama!
Mammals were a little harder to find, although we saw what we think were bobcat tracks once. At Fort Morgan, in between squalls, a long-legged Red Fox came out and just looked over the ocean. Birding teaches you to look quickly for all the wonderful creatures that abound in Nature. I am constantly amazed at the variety of animals we see in places where there are too many people to begin with. How wonderful that they can adapt! How sad that so many others cannot.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Alabama Raptor Sightings

Raptors are my favorite group of birds, and we saw many of them in Alabama. One of the sites on the Alabama Birding Trail is behind a restaurant on Mobile Bay in Daphne, AL. We pulled in one afternoon for a look, and someone who did not look like a birder at all, sitting in a car in the parking lot, commented that there was often a Bald Eagle in the tree below. We did see Bald Eagles right over downtown Fairhope, and also on a lake in Dauphin Island, but I got no pictures. The Northern Harrier lived up to its common name of Marsh Hawk as it swooped low over several marshes we visited, its white rump flashing in the sun. I've never seen a Merlin before, but we sighted one high in a tree. They are smaller than the Peregrine Falcon and have no sideburns as most falcons do.
While at Dauphin Island we saw two Peregrines, however, flying around chasing each other. If this had been another time of year, I would have described this as courting behavior, but not in October. Ospreys dove in the water or perched in the tree tops watching for fish. One sat by an empty nest along the Blakely River until becoming disturbed by the jet skis and other loud boaters. The noise chased us away too. A family with small children came by and looked at the Osprey in the scope. It was the first time they'd ever seen a raptor up close and personal, and the kids were properly impressed.
My favorite raptor for this trip was an American Kestral, since he posed in a tree close enough for photos. Although raptors aren't as numerous as other birds, they will usually be found in the same area if you keep a sharp eye out for them.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Lifetime List Additions

Birders are know for list keeping. They might have a back yard list, or a favorite birding site list, or a vacation list. All those lists added together make a Lifetime List. This list is zealously kept, since it gives bragging rights among other birders when you find that bird you have searched 10 years for. Of course, I can't get photos of every new bird. The Magnificent Frigatebird we saw was too high up for my camera to catch, but it was great to see how if differed from the usual Cormorants. The Clapper Rail called from the reeds, but would not come out of hiding for anything. The Gulf Coast has many different habitats for birds so many of our firsts are birds very unlikely to come to Kentucky. This Sedge Wren was in a thicket of reeds and brush. Nelson's Sharp Tailed Sparrow and the Seaside Sparrow quickly popped their heads up when the tour guide used his bird caller to lure them into taking a look. They disappeared into the marsh grass just as quickly, but we did see them so it counts. Warblers are always a challenge. The Bird Fest folks tried to level the field by pouring bird feed in one place they knew the warblers like to come to anyway. We added a Brown-headed Nuthatch, Tennessee Warbler, Yellow Throated Warbler, Black and White Warbler, and a Louisiana Warbler to the Life List. The banding station closed down due to lack of activity and a rapidly approaching storm front.
Our new coastal birds include Semi-Palmated Plover (a Killdeer-like bird with one throat band instead of two), Piping Plover, American Oystercatchers, Ruddy Turnstone, Semi-palmated Sandpiper, Dunlin (with a downcurved bill), Royal and Forster Terns, and Black Skimmer.
The Skimmers were preening on a sandbar, and I didn't get to see any of them actually skimming the surface. However, I was the successful bidder on a photo of just that at the silent auction. This was immediately after I told Dick I wouldn't bid on anyone else's photos - until I saw one that blew me away.
The final habitat was a long slough next to the bridge approach. We were headed for a spot on the Alabama Birding Trail formed by a hazardous waste site, believe it or not. We had to sign releases and fax them over first, then couldn't even find the entry point, unless it was up that road six inches deep in mud. We decided to pass and just see what we could find on our own. It was starting to rain again when we found the slough with White Ibis (mature and juvenile), a Glossy Ibis (looking black in the gloom), Black Necked Stilt, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Sandpipers and a Dunlin. We were proud that we found these on our own, and used the overpass to stay out of the rain. The dry sand under the overpass also had some great animal tracks - a Bobcat, we think, several birds, and a lizard leaving a long tail mark in the sand.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Alabama Coastal BirdFest

I am an official hard core birder now, having just attended the recent Alabama Coastal BirdFest, held on Mobile Bay in Alabama. Each morning at 6:30 am, we climbed onto a large tour bus to drive down to the rivers, bayous, marshes and ocean around Mobile Bay. It rained over 9 inches the first day, and we saw more mosquitoes than birds, but went back for the second trip any way. You could see the storm fronts crossing the bay, and we were glad for a nice dry bus when they arrived. Everyone was interested in birds, and very helpful to those who were not expert, pointing out the warblers in the branches and the subtle differences between small shore birds. When asked what birds we would like to find, I answered the Purple Galinule, which we did not see this year, but we added many other new birds to our "life" list. The experts were great help, but we were more proud of the birds we found and identified on our own. On one trip, the group sighted 67 different species, while the next day's group total was 56 species. Dick and I didn't count anything the group saw that we could not find, but still came up with 86 confirmed species that we personally saw in a five day period. As with most birding efforts, some of my photos are terrific, and others a little blurred due to the distance. This will be the first of several posts inspired by this trip. As always, just click on a picture to see a larger version.
We had one American Pelican at the Falls this summer, and everyone was excited to see it. They winter on the Gulf Coast, and we saw the V's of Pelicans coming in by the hundreds at Bayou La Batre. They even napped on a sandbar right off the city pier in Daphne. When nap time was over, they flew to the water, and floated or swam to another island out in the bay in a short time, looking like masses of white marker buoys in the distance.
The Brown Pelicans always put on a show. They can be so graceful when flying in formation, yet so awkward looking when they come in for a landing. Our last night in Daphne, we went to the pier where we had so much luck before, and saw the Brown Pelicans actively feeding, diving into the water with lots of splashing. Unfortunately, it started to rain, and I didn't want my camera and binoculars to get soaked, so we headed back instead of staying to watch. Better rain gear is on my wish list for Christmas. The Gulf Coast has been hard hit by hurricanes in the last five years, yet people keep building back in the same places for the most part. We saw houses tilting on their pylons, waiting for the insurance claims to be settled, two years after Katrina. Only the empty lots remain from other houses. A sand berm was built along the shore on Dauphin Island, intended to give people time to get away before being washed out to sea. Part of the berm was washed away by the thunderstorms alone, leaving a gap like a missing tooth in the wall of sand. The road along this barrier island was flooded. Our big tour bus got water in the electrical system and stalled out in a huge puddle in the road. It's beautiful along the ocean, but Dick and I concluded it would be better financially for the people and ecologically for the birds and the endangered Alabama Beach Mouse, if only camping were allowed there, and no permanent structures. Philosophy aside, we plan to go back to Gulf Shores and make our own birding trips to Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Fort Morgan and Dauphin Island some year for the spring migration.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

American Pelican

A wonderful bird is the pelican, His bill can hold more than his beli-can. He can take in his beak Food enough for the week; But I'm damned if I see how the heli-can. Dixon Lanier Merritt

The first rule in birding is never say never when it comes to what a bird will do or where you might find it. At the Falls of the Ohio, we have seen Avocets, Willetts, Black Backed Gulls and now an American Pelican, none of whom belong in this area of the country. Usually, these visitors fly in while trying to outrun a storm in their home territory. I’m not sure where this Pelican came from. We hear regular reports of Pelicans in Western Kentucky, but so far we’ve only seen one at the Falls. According to the Peterson field guide, the American Pelican has a wingspan of 8.5 to 9 feet. I can see a resemblance to a Pterodactyl! I first saw it three weeks ago up by the railroad trestle. This afternoon, I went down to the George Rogers Clark cabin where people reported seeing it all day. At first, it was in the channel that feeds the power plant, too far away to take a picture. One might guess it to be a swan, given the color and shape of the back. But look at that bill - no swan has a bill like that. Then it spread its wings and flew over to our side of the river, just upstream from the cabin. What a photo op! It didn’t seem interested in fishing at one o’clock in the afternoon, but just swam about, then went back to the other side again. I was surprised at how quickly it swam from one side of the river to another. I always enjoy watching the Brown Pelicans along the beach. This one was from Chesapeake Bay, skimming close to the water’s surface. It’s especially great when a group fly in a line. How can any animal so large be so graceful?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Special Fun at the Falls of the Ohio

When the river is low and the fossils are fully exposed, we have many special activities at the Falls of the Ohio. Last year, it started raining in September and didn’t stop until May, so some of these events had to be cancelled. This summer has been exceptionally dry and the special events have been very successful. Paul Olliges and other volunteers led trips to the Outer Fossil Beds, taking hikers though the spillway under the dam, down along the wall, and back again, stopping to examine Devonian fossils along with way. Bet Etenohan, one of the park Nature Interpreters, had a good turnout for her canoe hike. A canoe hike combines canoeing upstream from the Clark Cabin boat ramp up to the Outer Fossil Beds, to pull the boats on the rocks and hike around exploring the fossil formations – thus a Canoe-Hike.
Rock the Rocks is the annual fundraiser dinner for the Falls Foundation. We invited some special friends this year and just went to enjoy the food, music and a beautiful evening on the river. God himself came to this sunset, and I took his picture. I always think that the sun’s rays stretching from the horizon to the skies are God’s own hand. Now I’m having trouble deciding which of these sunset pictures to share on this blog! The Festival vendors and speakers come from all over with rocks, minerals, and of course fossils of every shape and size. Geodes are very popular and you can find unopened geodes, or others that have been split and polished. The amethysts are exceptionally beautiful in the sunlight. Hanson’s Quarry brought in three loads of dirt this year – one of Waldron Shale from the Silurian period, one from the Devonian era, and one with minerals from a quarry in Illinois. Since fossil collecting in the park is prohibited, this gives everyone, young or old, the chance to dig in the dirt and find their very own fossil. It’s much more exciting to find one yourself even though the purchased fossil may be much prettier. One boy in particular was dedicated to both his dig and his “hard hat”, which kept sliding down in his face! As much as I enjoyed the beautiful rocks and fossils, the birds were beautiful too on this perfect autumn day. I started walking through the woods early to get a good start on the migrating birds, making pishing and kissing noises trying to attract them. The spider webs were much easier to find. A few warblers were curious, but landed in a tree directly above my head, as warblers do, giving me a stiff neck and effectively keeping their identities a secret. How are you supposed to tell what bird it is when all you see is belly and the underside of a tail? The predators were much more cooperative though. A Cooper’s Hawk swooped over my head and landed in a tree along the river. Both Ospreys were in the air at the same time, and a Peregrine Falcon flew by several times. An Osprey landed on a branch so the visitors could see it through the scope, a first for many. Another volunteer said he saw a Red Shouldered Hawk, and I had already seen a Red Tailed Hawk. Towards the end of the day we even saw an American Kestral. The American Pelican from two weeks ago didn’t show up, but it was a great birding day for raptors. I started calling it a hat trick – Osprey, Peregrine and Cooper’s – but don’t know what you could call a day with SIX different raptor species on the list other than OUTSTANDING!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Weekend at Bernheim Forest

My husband volunteers at Bernheim Forest and won a night at the lodge maintained for VIPs, so we took advantage of the offer last weekend. The 95 degree heat continued, and our hikes were less ambitious than they might otherwise have been. Sitting out by the lake in the evening, watching the stars come out, the airplanes overhead, and spotting bats, an owl, and the occasional shooting star across the sky, topped the weekend's activities. We talked about nothing and everything--something that married couples don't do very often.
Despite the heat and drought, we managed to spot a few firsts for our birding list. Bernheim "Forest" has a large prairie near the entrance, which was full of Field Sparrows. We've heard them before, but this is the first time we ever actually saw them. The grass bends down when the bird lands to eat the small seeds, but not too much since the birds are lightweights. This one posed and sang to confirm his identity. In a nearby tree along the edge of the prairie, a flash of bright yellow turned out to be a Prairie Warbler (I think) rather than a Gold Finch, although the Gold Finches were the most common bird we saw or heard all weekend.
Along Lake Nevin we found a Great Blue Heron just standing in the shallows preening himself. He should have moved to the shade though, because the heat made him pant. A juvenile Green Heron came by a little later. We brought the spotting scope out to really appreciate the Heron, but left the digiscoping adapter at home. We got some nice pictures of the inside of the scope, but nothing of the birds! A pair of grebes paddled along in the middle of the lake, then disappeared when they dove under the water. Barn Swallows swooped over the lake for bugs and a drink of water on the wing. The light bellied birds may have been Tree Swallows, or female Purple Martins. A group of Martin houses stand by the lake, but I wasn't sure if the birds we saw were Martins or not. The lake was down quite a bit, since it's been so dry all summer, and the edges were muddy, just the right spot for Killdeer.
The list for the dry, hot weekend includes:
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • Killdeer
  • Prairie Warbler
  • Juvenile Green Heron
  • Indigo Bunting
  • Eastern Woods Peewee
  • Canadian Geese
  • Carolina Wren
  • Cardinal
  • Barn Swallows
  • Song Sparrow
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • Owl (unknown variety)
  • Gold Finch
  • Field Sparrow
  • Bats

We'll have another night at the lodge, I'm sure, when we can light a fire in the fireplace, toast marshmallows and listen to old records. This weekend, we were just glad the air conditioning worked!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Hazy, Hot and Humid - The Dog Days of Summer

The "Dog Days of Summer" come with the Kentucky State Fair, and I've always called it Fair Weather. We have conditions of 95 degrees in temperature, 95% humidity and Indiana disappears altogether in the haze and pollution when you try to look across the river. Now, schools start in mid-August, so children have to concentrate while sweating if they are in non-air conditioned buildings. We've always had this kind of weather in late summer, I suppose, but you notice it more when moving from A/C to non-A/C. I remember moving to the basement in the summer as much as possible when I was growing up. Even with air conditioning, my interest in outside activities lessens in this hot weather, thus the lack of entries in the blog in the last few weeks.
At the Falls of the Ohio, the Army Corps of Engineers closed down the gates in the dam in May this year, since there was not a steady supply of rain. The river depth at the gauge above the McAlpine Dam is about 12-12.5 feet now. The barge companies are complaining that they cannot put a full load on their barges due to the shallow depth of the water. Occasionally, the Corps will open the gates just a bit to flush out the stagnant water at the Falls, and all the birds appreciate it. Castellations cut in the dam allow water to flow into the ponds and marshes required by the birds and animals all year. Small springs feed puddles on the Lower Fossil Beds, and early in the morning ducks such as this female Wood Duck come to look for bugs and small aquatic life before the people and heat arrive.
As the water recedes, more rocks are exposed, covered with a layer of silt that proves attractive to many birds. Herons and Egrets leave their tracks in the mud. They take flight if you come too close to the mudflats and go sit in a tree in the shade - not a bad idea. Yesterday we saw two Ospreys on a branch overhanging one of the waterfalls, and then they moved to the shallows where they just sipped water and waded around. Either it was just too hot to fly and fish, or these were juveniles who have not perfected their fishing skills yet. I suspect the later. It was great to get them in the spotting scope and invite our visitors to watch them, since we don't see the Ospreys as often as the other birds.