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.