Monday, January 29, 2007

The "Red" Birds of Kentucky

One expects to see large birds on an Eagles Weekend and the Bald Eagles and Snow Geese certainly meet that expectation. However, by walking around a bit, we also saw many different smaller birds, some very familiar, and others which were a first sighting for us. I particularly noticed the number of birds having "red" in their names. The wetlands near the Kentucky Forestry Dept. tree nursery at Kentucky Dam Village is an approachable cypress swamp. The edge of the lake is surrounded by brush, and the shallow water held a light coat of ice early in the morning, but the Redwinged Blackbirds were out in force. They must have some sort of camera radar, because every time I focused on one, it flew just out of sight and started singing again. The classic red bird, the Northern Cardinal, also avoided having its picture taken as long as possible. I have four different pictures of the place where the Cardinal had been a second earlier. Do you think they can hear the auto focus on the camera? Maybe that's why I don't have many Cardinal pictures from my backyard. The Eastern Bluebird is abundant at the Park too. Even though they don't have "red" in their name, they certainly have a roufous belly, which surprises many people The Red-headed Woodpecker, on the other hand, loves to have its picture taken. Almost every time we heard a rat-tat-tat up in a tree, it was a Red-headed Woodpecker. Unless, of course, it was a Red-Bellied Woodpecker! I rarely see Red-headed Woodpeckers at home, so it was a delight to find so many of them at the park. The Red-tailed Hawks perched on the branches along each road we drove. Sometimes what we thought was an Eagle at first turned out to be a Red-tailed Hawk soaring overhead instead. When they bank to the side, that tail glows in a burnt orange color. Of course, I had no luck catching a wild one in my lens, but the one at the raptor program didn't blink an eye when all those flashes went off in his face. He looks rather disdainful of the process. The ducks and other waterfowl were also a bit camera shy. At the tree nursery, we could see through the brush with binoculars and found many ducks we've never seen before, including Common Goldeneye (their eyes really are golden, even from a distance). The stark black and white pattern of the Bufflehead was identifiable from across the lake. Flights of Canadian Geese circled then splashed to a landing. The black rump feathers of the Gadwall stood out for another first sighting. We saw some Ring-Necked Ducks, and I feel confident that Lesser Scaup were also on the lake that chilly morning. This photo is a Ring-Necked Duck, not a Golden-Eye as I originally thought from a distance. We don't see a lot of ducks at the Falls of the Ohio, so this was very exciting for me. I half expected to find some Northern Shovelers, but didn't recognize them if they swam with the other ducks. If the brush hadn't been so thick, or if there has been an observation deck, the spotting scope would have given us a better view. More importantly, I could have had much closer photos of the ducks. Ah well, someday I'll have that big lens, and then the small birds won't escape so easily.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Snow Goose Blizzard

Even on a gray, blustery day in January, the Ballard Wildlife Management Area teems with life. Near Bandana, KY, about 30 miles west of Paducah, Ballard is owned and operated by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. This 8,400 acre wetland area in the Ohio River flood plain is home to many Kentucky birds, but is a special wintering area for Bald Eagles, Canadian Geese, Snow and Blue Geese, other ducks and waterfowl. Right on the Mississippi flight path, many migrating birds stop here on their way to other places, while others live there year round, including some of the Eagles. The wildlife are primarily managed for hunters, but hunting is prohibited from October 15 to March 15 so the Eagles can nest undisturbed. Charlie Wilkins, manager of the property, gave us the special tour in his newly acquired school bus, which we filled to capacity. This one was an improvement, I understand, because it doesn’t leak gas fumes in with the passengers. The corpses of older abandoned buses sat in the yard when we drove in, looking like hunting trophies. It’s just as well that Charlie drove, though, because I would have gotten lost very quickly among the sloughs, cypress swamps and fields of standing corn and grain. The river is high right now, and Charlie warned us that he would be driving through water over many of the roads. I never did see the pontoons coming out from under the bus to support us when we became amphibian though! A regular car would have been flooded, and the passengers would have to find their own way back to headquarters. Our first exciting view was of five juvenile Bald Eagles perched in the same tree. It seemed that every time we made a turn, we spied more Eagles perched on the tip of dead tree branches. Due to the gray weather conditions, many of my photos came out as silhouettes, but you can still tell they are Eagles. The nest we saw didn’t have any activity, but Charlie assured us the brooding pair would show up any day now. White tail deer bounded across the fields and into the woods as we roared past. I imagine there were ducks too, but we couldn’t see them from the moving vehicle. Any turkeys wisely stayed hidden in the brush.
Finally, we reached the point where Charlie stopped the bus, saying “Look at the snow…”, and he wasn’t talking about cold white flakes falling from the sky. An estimated 60,000 to 70,000 Snow Geese and Blue Geese winter at Ballard, and we must have startled all of them. With the bus motor shut down, we opened the windows to hear the most amazing and very LOUD sound made by so many birds. (Click the link and scroll down the page to hear a recording of these geese.) As they flew up, they banked and turned in unison. The black primary wing feathers made it hard to tell one individual from another in the air. To tell the truth, my immediate impression was to compare these geese with swarms of locusts. They made lots of noise, flying in tight groups and wheeling in unison. In fact, Charlie said they are known for stripping a field down to the bare earth in a short time. Canadian Geese will nip off the top edges of any plants they find, while Snow Geese yank the whole plant out roots and all, so the field is cleaned completely by their passage. Apparently, Blue Geese are just a color variation of the regular white Snow Goose, with a white head and dark body. Both and white and dark babies can come from the same batch of eggs. Canadian Geese will move elsewhere when the Snow Geese arrive. I failed to ask if it is possible to come back another time just to walk around looking at the birds. I certainly wouldn't want a hunter to mistake me for something else, but I would enjoy using binoculars and spotting scope without a bus full of people to lean around.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Gathering of Eagles

The American Bald Eagle was nearing extinction 35 years ago. Now they have recovered to the point where they are being removed from the Threatened list. Just as people caused their decline, people then promoted their reintroduction in appropriate areas for their well-being. Education about these marvelous birds among ordinary people also contributed to their recovery.
We just returned home from our third Kentucky State Parks Eagles Weekend, this year at Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park on Kentucky Lake. A naturalist from Land Between the Lakes described Kentucky Lake as "Eagles' Paradise", with over 300 miles of relatively undisturbed wooded coastline along the lake. There is a resident breeding population, as well as the visitors who come from up north to winter in the mild unfrozen waters of the lake. In less than 48 hours, we saw about 73 Eagles! Since we saw many other kinds of birds too, I will break this trip into three separate blog entries: Eagles, Ballard WMA, and other birds and waterfowl. As always, click any picture to get a larger view of it.
The Parks do a great job offering different alternatives for viewing the eagles. My favorite is the CQ Princess, an enclosed boat that travels up and down the lake shore at speeds favorable to finding and viewing the Bald Eagles as they perch in trees along the water's edge. It helps that a knowledgable naturalist is onboard with stories and guidance on finding the birds. Since the trees are dark and the eagles are dark brown, it takes some practice to spot them, even when someone else is standing there giving directions. "See the cliff, and the white sycamore tree? Look just to the right and about 3/4 of the way to the top of the tallest tree." A good pair of binoculars are a must, and this is where you learn to use them. One guide said look for a football shape with white on the top, and that's a pretty good summary of what they look like. The juvenile eagles are all brown, and more difficult to find. Cloudy weather also affects their visibility, but when they fly it just takes your breath away! There is a nest on the park property, with a pair fondly known as Elvis and Priscilla. Although we found the nest, we weren't lucky enough to see Elvis and Priscilla cleaning house.
Van trips go to Land Between the Lakes led by experts from Ky. Fish and Wildlife or Naturalists from LBL. Having done that trip for two years, we decided to drive to some of the coves on our own this year. At Smith Bay, we found an eagle on a nest. The vans from the official trip were there too, and the drivers agreed that this was a new nest, smaller than the ones usually found. With the bare eye, all you see is a white spot, but the spotting scope was great to watch her with. Last year at Duncan Lake, the eagles gathered in late afternoon, and called back and forth as they bedded down for the evening. This year, we were there in the morning, and saw at least 8 mature eagles flying in courting behavior! Sometimes we would see one adult and a juvenile in the same tree, a mother and child from last season the experts say. Someday, I may have to break down and spend about $3,500 on a camera and really good long lens for situations like this. But for now, I'm fairly pleased with what I got. After a while, I remembered that the camera can also take QuickTime movies, and got Eagles in flight as a movie.
On Friday evening a speaker talks about Eagles and briefs any newcomers in the audience on what they should expect. On Saturday, a live raptor program traditionally comes with birds that have been injured or are in some other way unable to be released to the wild. These birds have certainly caught my interest every year. When I retire, I hope to work with the Kentucky Raptor Rehab program in just this way. It's great to watch the kids in the audience waving their arms to answer questions about the birds. This year David Haggard from Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee brought his Bald Eagle (the picture at the top), and it was really an adventure. This Eagle kept staring intently at the bald head of the guy in the front row! I wonder what it was thinking about.... Dave says that most raptors can make you cry if they injure you, while an Eagle can put you in the hospital. His bird got a little excited, and put a claw through the Kevlar glove right into Dave's finger. He was fine by this morning though. (Dave that is, don't know about the bird!)
My next entries will talk about our trip to Ballard Wildlife Management Area with both Eagles and Snow Geese in abundance.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Constant Change

The only constant in life is change.
While surfing the web one day, I wandered to the National Zoo site, and found an article called "Fear, Loathing, and Adaptability in Birds." The title alone, of course, caught my attention right away. Since when do birds have fear and loathing, I asked myself. The article asks a very timely question. Why do some species seem to adapt to human-altered habitats and thrive there, while others suffer and either move on or die out? We have all seen the myriad starlings and house sparrows who thrive in our neighborhoods. I have watched as crows and even hawks are regularly seen in the suburbs now, although I never saw them there when I was a child. As their normal habitats shrink, some birds move right in along with people, while others become more rare. Some species adapt to the change, while others do not. Russell Greenberg, the author of this article for the National Zoo, suggests that neophobia, or fear of the new, may play some part in this. He conducted some experiments with the wild mallards and wood ducks that come to the zoo, selecting them because of their long association with humans. He expected them to have less fear of the new than other wild ducks, but instead found them to be "amazingly neophobic." Greenberg put some traffic cones, a new feature, near the ducks' regular feeding station. To his surprise, they showed reluctance to feed in this new situation. Other experiments with rats, crows and house sparrows, also closely associated with humans, resulted in high levels of neophobia. Behavior such as an attraction to something new (which might be a new or better food source, for example) must be tempered and balanced with caution (the new thing might be a trap or poisoned). Paying attention to novelty in the local environment has enabled an individual or a species to survive over the ages. Making a decision on what to do with the novelty is the hard part. This becomes even more difficult when one novelty is followed by many more in a short period of time. People have trouble adapting to change too. In our lifetime, I think it is the amount and speed of change that is a problem. My grandfather once related that in his life, he saw the world change from horse and buggy to putting a man on the moon. Change has never happened as fast and as frequently as during the 20th and now the 21st Centuries. Now humans seem to make changes to the world and their society simply because they can, not because the change will be a benefit. Or it may be a short-term benefit, but has anyone considered the long term consequences? Newer isn't always Better. Unfortunately, we don't always get to choose whether to accept or reject the change. It was recently announced that people who just use rabbit ears to get broadcast TV, at no charge, will have to buy a converter because everything will be broadcast in digital. Yet, how quickly we become accustomed to these changes. A hurricane near Hong Kong broke some underseas cables, disrupting Internet access for the area, including the Hong Kong stock exchange. What would happen to our "civilization" when a disaster, either natural or man-made, disrupts communication to a larger area? I once heard a statement that it would only take three days of a transportation failure for our economy to collapse. Think about a blizzard or a hurricane or earthquake that can paralyze an entire region. It is so frightening to think about. Would I trade my life and go back to live during the settlement of the Falls of the Ohio area in the late 1700's? No way! Travel was difficult and dangerous, so not many people travelled. Regional customs and practices were maintained because no one knew anything different. People died of diseases which are easily cured now. Sometimes I hear people lament about how life has changed, and I admit, sometimes the change has not been for the good. But would I go back? Definitely not. I would be interested to see what my great grandchildren will say about life in the early 21st century. Would they be interested in living our lifestyle?