Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Magic

Childhood Christmas memories are stronger and better than any others. I remember waking up early, and going out to plug in the Christmas tree. Those big 2 inch lights lit up the entire room, and I sat there just enjoying it. Every 30 minutes or so, I'd go ask Mom, "Can we get up now? Is it time for Christmas yet?" Of course, I didn't realize at 3:00 in the morning, that she probably hadn't been asleep too long. Why isn't she excited about Christmas? By 4:30 or so, she would let me open one present, if I promised not to bother her again for a few hours. In triumph, I'd plug the lights back in and find the book I knew would be there. The Bobbsey Twins latest adventure read by Christmas tree lights - now that's a thrill!

My mother was one of six children, and all of them lived in our little town except one uncle. Grandma's house was stuffed with aunts and uncles and cousins, the windows steaming till we had to open the door to let the heat out. We made fresh chicken salad and ham salad every year, and Grandma's famous 3 layer Christmas Jello mold. Of course, we kids would only eat the plain red layer! The house had high ceilings - 10 feet at least - and we went to an uncle's farm to cut a fresh cedar tree for Grandma, one that would brush the ceiling. The first year she had a store bought pine tree I just about cried. The moon and stars always shone brighter at Grandma's house on Christmas Eve than any other place or time, throwing shadows on the sidewalk.

It's funny how the holidays tend to blur together as an adult. Maybe it's because we feel pressed by the responsibilities of our families, and just don't capture those individual moments as much as we did when children. I'll have to ask my kids if they have any special memories and see what sticks in their minds. For now, my blessings are my husband and children. Everyone is healthy and either employed or retired as they wish. In this economy, having a job is good, even if it's not necessarily the job of your dreams.

Merry Christmas, and God Bless Us Every One!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Six Random Things

A side effect of sitting before a computer in the IT Department all day is that I don't get on my computer at home unless there are some new photos to work with. Thus, it took over a week for me to see that Katdoc had tagged me for this! Sorry for the delay Kathy, but here goes. And Merry Christmas!

1. Athletic Activities: I used to go whitewater rafting in West Virginia every fall, on the New River or the Gauley. One year we went on the Upper Gauley (serious whitewater) during the remnants of Hurricane Hugo. I smashed my front teeth in on the paddle, and after three root canals to repair the damage, decided to take up riding and showing American Saddlebred horses, a safer activity! Now hiking around looking for birds is as active as I get--as long as it doesn't make me sweat.

2. Trivia: I love trivia! Jeopardy is my favorite TV show. I took the online test once, but didn't do very well, so I'll just continue being the armchair Jeopardy champion. I've always wanted to know everything.

3. Retirement: It's coming soon, and I have great plans. I want to write a book about the Falls of the Ohio using my photos. The Kentucky Raptor Rehab can always use more volunteers. I'll be the best raptor presentation giver they've ever had! Or course, we want to travel too - National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, any place with birds and nature.

4. Winter: Winter makes me SAD. It's dark when I leave for the office and dark when I come home. I pack a lunch, and don't get out at all during the day. I'd like to just hibernate like a bear and sleep until Spring.

5. Warm and fuzzy: I have a double sided fleece blanket (with cardinals on it) which is the warmest thing I've ever seen. The cat sits on my lap and we both are comfy cozy for a nice nap in the easy chair.

6. Mountains: I burned up a set of brakes (literally - there was smoke trailing behind us) in the Smokies once and have distrusted mountains ever since. At Rocky Mountain National Park, I got altitude sickness and felt just awful till we came back down to a lower elevation. I have absolutely no interest in skiing since it requires both mountains and cold.

So that's about all there is to know about me....

Now, who to tag next? I follow the same people's blogs that Katdoc does mostly. That's how I found her and her wonderful sense of humor. We have friends who volunteer with my husband at Bernheim Forest and Arboretum. They don't have individual blogs mostly, but all contribute to one jointly, so I'm going to tag several people there. If I've tagged anyone else who has been tagged a dozen times before, my apologies.

Bob Lenning at Naturewriter and Thingamabobs
Wren at Naturewriter
Tavia at Naturewriter
Terrell at Naturewriter
Swampy at Swampthings
Kathie at Sycamore Canyon
Here are the rules for Six Random Things:

1. Link to the person who tagged you.
2. Post the rules on your blog.
3. Write six random things about yourself.
4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them.
5. Let each person know they've been tagged and leave a comment on their blog.
6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

'Bama Bugs and Butterflies

The Alabama Gulf Coast abounds in bugs and butterflies, particularly with large dragonflies. I've been able to identify the butterflies, which posed cooperatively for the camera. The dragonflies, however, are perpetual motion insects, rarely lading anywhere long enough to focus the camera. Any names you see on them may well just be a descriptive name so I can tell one shot from another. If anyone knows the names of these dragonflies, I'd sure be glad to learn. The large yellow dragonflies never did land, that I could see. Once we saw a large yellow helicopter flying over, and I quickly told Dick to look up at the giant yellow dragonfly going over!
Painted Lady

Gulf Fritillary - topside

Gulf Fritillary - bottom side

Common Buckeye

Why do butterflies go to the beach?

Long-tailed Skipper

Mystery bug - looks vicious

A 2 inch long spider

I'm glad dragonflies aren't 3 feet big as there were in prehistoric times.

Big fat dragonflies are a favorite Kestrel food.

Don't want to find this beetle in my shoes!

Red Saddlebag Dragonfly

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Who's Awake?

They say all good things must end, including vacations. We try to stretch ours out by stopping at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Northern Alabama along the Tennessee River. The drought is just terrible and all the wetlands are dry lands where the migrating waterfowl should be stopping to feed. Acres of water lily leaves blow in the breeze, three feet above the mud which is all that remains of the lake edges. We walked a few trails, but saw little in the way of birds. The volunteers in the Visitors Center are both retired and spend their time going from Park to Refuge around the country, living in their RV and having a wonderful time. We got some good ideas from them to investigate for our retirement plans.

A cave where ten thousand grey bats reside is nearby, and we head down to it around sunset. Although the afternoon warmed up nicely, as the sun set, the temperature dropped with it. The spring in the cave poured out into a beaver pond, so this was one place with plenty of water available. The Downy and Red Bellied Woodpeckers chattered and flew about until it was almost too dark to see, but no bats left the cave that we found. How do they know when it's time to come out anyway? we wondered.

Just as we started back to the car, I heard a soft call along the shore. "Who's awake?" it asked. "I'm awake," came the response, "Me too!" Once again, wishing has made it so. We kept thinking there should be owls along the beaver pond, and now we hear Great Horned Owls! Dick hooted back, and at first, we thought there was only one bird, responding to his hoots, even though neither of us knew what the other was saying. Finally we decided there were two birds talking to each other and trying to ignore this intruder to their conversation. Especially, since he didn't speak owl very well. After a few minutes, we actually saw the two owls take wing and leave for another part of the woods. I thought I heard them mutter something about rude people who wouldn't stop talking as they flew away.

We awoke early, as usual (will this always happen when we retire?), and got an early start on our bird watching. The cave area was fogged in, so we headed to some bottom land forests. Beautiful trees! A Hermit Thrush sang a duet with itself - another life bird for us. Two Red Shouldered Hawks shouted at each other from a swampy area, but hid from our view. Small Kinglets, Warblers, Chickadees and Nuthatches darted from branch to branch, chattering happily. Again, as we headed back to the car, we heard a soft call from the trees nearby. "Who cooks for you?" this one asked. It's 10:00 in the morning. Could there be a Barred Owl looking for breakfast this late in the day? Dick tried to talk to it again. This time the voice moved to a nearer tree, then stopped. I think she decided we were not good cooks when she saw us. If we had heard a Screech Owl too we really would have scored an Owl hat-trick!

It was a perfect day to drive home. The fall foliage was at its peak in northern Alabama. The hillsides were a crazy quilt pattern of yellow, gold, bronze, russet, orange, and scarlet on a background of deep pine green, with white fingers of Sycamore reaching through the canopy here and there, and a brilliant sky blue above. As we crossed into Tennessee, we could see the colors beginning to fade a bit. By the time we reached Louisville, the hills were the brown and grey we will see for the rest of the winter for the most part. Hawks soared, just enjoying the day, I think, more than they were hunting.

I have a comment to make to those drivers on I-65, in their cars, trucks, and SUV's, their RV's pulling horse trailers, and their semis. I heard you cursing at me, as you passed going 70 mph and more.

My Prius going at 63 mph, gets 52-54 miles per gallon on a regular basis. If there's a good stretch of downhill, it can reach 58 miles per gallon. HA! Top that, Bub!

Friday, October 31, 2008

More at the Shore

Back to Dauphin Island today, with a side trip to Bayou La Batre. We managed to find the places we had visited with the Bird Fest last year, but did not see the same birds, missing American Pelicans, Oyster Catchers, Avocets, and Ibis of any color. Long sessions with Lillian Stokes' Beginners Guide to Shorebirds, with serious page flipping and second guessing, comparing the (to us) identical birds, led to some exciting conclusions that did not always hold up when I enlarged the photos I took from a long distance. Dauphin Island's public beach on the west end of the island had the most shorebirds along its sandbars and small tidal pools. We think we saw Dunlin, Solitary Sandpipers, and Semipalmated Plover. We know there were Willets, Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones.

Great Blue Herons sometimes stand in the water, and sometimes meditate in the sea oats on shore. We saw one bird doing a dance in the shallow pool, actually chasing the fish! Never saw a Heron do that before, we mused. As I looked at the photos, however, I thought this bird did not really look like a heron, despite the long legs and neck. The bill was not yellow on the bottom, there were no stripes on the head, and it just looked smaller than usual. Could it be a Little Blue Heron instead? I had just wished we could see a Reddish Egret sometime, and hallelujah, the field guide illustrated this Egret "dancing while feeding!" That has to be it! Whoo-hoo! Another Lifer for us!
The raptors did not let us down today either. This Red Tailed Hawk perched in a high snag and posed in the breeze. A Harrier soared behind a tree, landing for a few seconds, then going on to more important places. His white belly shone in the setting sun, and if only he had lingered a few more seconds, I would have had a great shot.

We are leaving for Kentucky in the morning, so let me take one last chance to rant on about people who insist on building houses on sandbars. West Dauphin Island is just that - a perfectly flat sandbar. No trees, no dune grass, nothing to stop the wind and waves during a storm. Yet idiots continue to build houses there. Today we tried to get to that end of the island, and had to give up. They have snow in upstate New York. The sand in Alabama looks like big snow drifts and digging equipment shovels it up and big trucks haul it God knows where. The only sign of progress was all the empty lots with For Sale signs before them. Maybe folks are finally figuring out that is isn't very smart to build on a sandbar! Duhh!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Dauphin Island Birding

The ferry runs between Ft. Morgan and Dauphin Island each day. When we arrived early this morning, we weren't the first at the dock, as you can see. Now that the wind has died down, it was a very pleasant trip. Dauphin Island is another Globally Important Birding site, and we had a great time wandering around the Audubon Bird Sanctuary, exploring the maritime forests, dunes, lakes and marshes.

We found another lifer - some Semipalmate Sandpipers - at least I sure hope that's what we are seeing here. The Ruddy Turnstones were real cuties.

A Great Blue Heron caught half a fish! Apparently the fishermen catch a large fish, fillet it and throw the head and tail back in. This guy was trying so hard to swallow this huge half fish, and finally got it down. Talk about determination!

Why do people insist on building and rebuilding on the same site after it gets blown away by hurricanes? The Dauphin Island Sea Lab Estuarium showed exhibits about the changes in the water level over thousands of years, and the movement of sand dunes and barrier islands. You can see the dead trees in the dunes that used to be part of the forest. Sure, I know, it's fun to be at the beach, but I think there oughta be a law that you can only camp at the beach! People are such fools sometimes. I guess I just get crabby about this, and leave crabby footprints in the sand thinking about it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Birding Expectations

Expectations are funny things. If you expect a lot, you can be disappointed sometimes. If you don't expect much, you may not try as hard. Since we were here last year, I had an idea of what to look for, and honestly, we've been a bit disappointed, in both the number of species and individuals found so far. The Alabama Birding Trail hasn't always resulted in much. This year's birding festival was last week -- can a week make such a difference? The weather turned cold and extra windy, and I'm not sure if this makes the birds stay put or what. Also, we have stayed on the beach and the coast instead of the inland marshy areas for the most part, so that may make a difference too. We have seen quite a few warblers, but without an expert, all I can do is say - Oh, there's another warbler! Actually identifying them is pretty tough. Same with any smaller shore birds. I recognize the Willets and Sanderlings with confidence, but anything else is just a guess. Maybe sometime I should ask Santa for a $2,000 Swarovski scope...

However, today we did have some pretty nice finds, though not the ones we expected, around Perdido Bay. A terrific boardwalk led over the dunes and I got some real postcard photos. Maybe someday I can make a lot of money selling photos to the gift shops! Dick says this Heron was hiding in the sea oats for fasting and meditation! An Osprey circled us for a while, and I'm learning the tricks with my new camera, so these turned out pretty well. A pod of 8-10 dolphins swam up and down the channel, for some shots I usually don't see.

We've become fascinated with tracks in the sand, both human and otherwise. Today I saw some unusual prints that looked like a really really small car tire tread, but they were under water along the bank. As I looked, a sea shell moved along the bottom, and I realized a hermit crab was in it, making the tracks we saw!

Before leaving this spot on the Birding Trail, we heard some action in the brush and went to investigate, adding a Swamp Sparrow to our life list. The really strange find was a large (robin sized) bird with a yellow belly, and brown and buff stripes on its head. The more I looked, the more I thought it was a Meadow Lark. What do you think? Maybe a juvenile, or just in nonbreeding feathers. How did this guy get to the swamp by a lagoon so close to the ocean? I know Alabama has agricultural areas that would be great for it, but I think he got turned down the wrong road!

Got Bugs?

"Won't you step inside for a bite?" said the pitcher plant to the bug.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Squeaky Toy in the Tree

Pelicans are such a joy to watch! They are awkward looking in the water, but soar with such precision. They fly in formation, playing follow the leader, flapping in time and swooping up and down, seeing how close they can get to the water. Today, they just concentrated on fishing and stuffing their bellies, which were holding plenty, believe me! What's not to love about live Pterodactyls flying by!

What bird sounds like a child's squeaky bath toy? Give up? We finally decided that all that racket was coming from 10-12 Bluebirds in a large pine tree. Other noise makers included some bright yellow Magnolia Warblers, and a drabber warbler that looked like a Pine Warbler (and it was in a pine tree, right?) When a Kestrel suddenly appeared, the noise levels escalated, although Kestrels don't eat anything this big. When the Harrier soared by, all the little birds disappeared into the branches!

Three layers of clothes and it's still really cold here along the Gulf Coast, but the bright sunshine makes you feel better about it. Following the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail through Baldwin County, we started at a mariculture facility (like a fish farm), but most of the birds thought it was too cold to be out too. We did find one Spotted Sandpiper (another life bird), which bobbed its tail the whole time we saw it, thus matching the identification in the Stokes' Shorebird book.

Weeks Bay Estuary has a great observation platform at the end of a boardwalk through the southern forest and marsh. I love the labels on unfamiliar trees and ferns. We also found an unlabeled giant spider - at least 2 inches long - which I have been unable to identify so far. A Kestrel sped past, and caught a dragonfly on the wing as Dick watched. "Maybe that's why the big dragonflies don't land often - they don't want to be Kestrel krunchies!" He flew a couple victory laps, just to show off. An immature Bald Eagle landed in a nearby tree, while an Osprey perched across the bay. The raptors continue to be our favorites on this trip, but that's to be expected, right?

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Sands of Time

Why does the beach always make me thoughtful? Is it because I come to the beach so seldom, and it's always something special in my life? Does it make me think about the eternal nature of the ocean and shore, and my own ephemeral existence?

Today, we walked along the pristine beach at Bon Secour NWR, a spot sheltered from commercial activity, and too remote for casual beach walkers. It was like being the first people on a newly discovered land. There were no human footprints. The wind blew little mini-dunes in the sand. No beer cans. No tire tracks. No volleyball nets. The road itself was half gone. Only the birds left footprints, and they ignored us for the most part. The Ruddy Turnstone was more interested in an afternoon bath. The shells had both the top and bottom halves still together, and were propped upright in the sand. We saw the prints of a large feline earlier in the morning - a bobcat? The Alabama Beach Mouse is an endangered species, and we searched for small tracks that might belong to one. We saw tunnels under the sand and have no idea what creature made it.

As we walked up over the dunes to a spot listed on the Birding Trail, I commented that we would be able to easily find our way back to the car since ours were the only tracks around. To my surprise, after only 15 minutes at the bog, our footprints were already blowing away! If we had stayed for an hour, they would have been gone completely. Humankind is like that, leaving a mark on the world, or making a mess of things, rather than just a mark. Then mother nature has to clean up after us. On the beach, she's a pretty determined house keeper.