Saturday, May 24, 2008

Who Is That Masked Bird?

When I was a kid, The Lone Ranger was one of my favorite TV shows. At the end of each episode, a townsman would scratch his head and ask, "Who was that masked man?" I felt that way birding at the Falls this morning.

The Cedar Waxwings arrived, and chased each other from one end of the park to another as fast as they could fly, and that's saying something! This must have been the grandfather of the flock, content to sit on a branch soaking up the early morning sun. Our mulberry trees are going to be absolutely FULL of berries in 2 or 3 weeks, and I think these Waxwings are scoping out the neighborhood for the best trees to claim as their own.

As I turned up the trail from the river into the Woodland Trail, I heard a "witchety, witchety" call from the trees. The warbler gods smiled on me and led me to a Common Yellowthroat in the brush, the first one I've ever found myself. He too wears a mask. Do you think masked birds have a secret identity? Are they really some other kind of mild mannered bird during the off season?

Other mystery birds don't need masks to hide their identities. They just dress up to look like any of four or five other birds of similar appearance. For example, I followed a bird around at the Cabin for a while, hoping to get a good picture. From the binoculars, it might have been a Phoebe, but there was no tail bobbing. I heard a Peewee from the branches -- maybe that's what it was. It would leap from a branch, flapping in all directions, then return to the branch with a bug. Some kind of flycatcher, I bet. Yes, there are two wingbars, but I'm completely unable to distinguish the Empidonax Flycathers in the Peterson book from each other. It didn't sing, and mostly stayed silhouetted against the background. An Acadian? An Alder Flycatcher? Your guess is as good as mine. I do like the peacefulness of the bird with the water sparkling in the background, even if I'm not certain what it is. Sometimes you have to enjoy and appreciate without knowledge.

Last week I had good pictures of the Red Bellied Woodpecker at the nest hole. His behavior seemed agitated, but I didn't really know why, until today. I looked for him at the nest hole again today, but saw only a starling, sitting quietly, preening its feathers in front of the nest hole. I am afraid that's what caused the Woodpecker's agitation last week. His nest was being raided and destroyed by a Starling.

Two nice people looked at my photos this morning, and I gave them this blog address, but did not give them the correct one. I'm sorry. That's the danger of putting things in your favorites or using software to remember your passwords. You don't remember yourself if you don't have to use it manually. I hope these people can find this blog, or just come back to the Falls again and ask. My husband got some cards printed up after his retirement. Maybe I should do the same.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Bittersweet Birding

We joined the Beckham Bird Club for another birding adventure this morning at Nettleroth Bird Sanctuary in Cherokee Park. Beargrass Creek winds through the park, flooding the roads when it rains, and attracting a wide variety of birds. We shared the park with bikers, skaters, and dog walkers. The roads are one-way now, so you don't have to dodge traffic in both directions. Watch out for those bikers though, they like to speed!

We counted 45 species today in about three hours of birding. The loudly singing Tennessee Warbler was a new one for me. Our leaders saw some Bay-Breasted Warblers and a Red Eyed Vireo. I heard the Vireo (as always) along with a shy Wood Thrush. One leader and I did actually see a Parula, which others missed - a first for me! I think I'm starting to overcome my Fear of Warblers, after some successes with them this year. A Great Crested Flycatcher called "WHEEP" as we walked along, and I learned the difference between an Acadian Flycatcher and a Phoebe. Small flocks of Cedar Waxwings played in the branches. This pair pushed each other from side to side, while another Waxwing seemed to be the referee for the game.

The walk was bittersweet because it led through the park and right up to the house formerly owned by Dick's parents. Although Dick did not grow up in this house, we still had many happy hours and memories of it. When we visited for a weekend before we got married, Dad would get some extra trail horses at Rock Creek Riding Club, and we rode through the park to tie up at a hitching post right in the yard. After breakfast, we headed back to the barn with the horses. How many people do you know with a hitching post and Cherokee Park in their back yard?

Our children loved going to Grandmommy's house by the park. Once our daughter's tricycle got out of control going down the steep drive, but her long-legged uncle saved her from severe injury at the bottom. Dad always kept the yard mowed, even though parts of it belonged to the Park. The big Ginko tree is still there, but some of the others have died. Now, much has grown up, and young trees are being planted to move the process along. It is appropriate for the Nettleroth Bird Sanctuary to be their back yard, since I became fascinated watching the birds that came to Mom's feeders. It is sweet to remember all the good times, and bitter to acknowledge that this part of our lives is gone forever.

It's much more fun to go birding in the whole park than just the viewing it through the window. Indigo Buntings came to show off their iridescent blue feathers, which some of our group had never seen before. An American Redstart in full breeding plumage displayed his fine colors, fanning his tail to show off. We found the "mossy" looking nest of a Blue Gray Gnatcatcher. Initially, we thought it was empty, but closer examination showed the mother's tail sticking out at the top. The final bird on the list was a Red Shouldered Hawk, and the sun shone right through the translucent "window" of his wings. I learned that there is a Red Shouldered Hawk's nest not too far from my house, but was unable to find it on the way home. I'll have to get our birder friends to show me.

At the Falls on Saturday, the river was completely out of its banks again, so no hiking was possible along the river, but there was plenty of activity in the woods. A mama Red Bellied Woodpecker must have been laying eggs inside her nest hole, because her mate was having absolute fits outside the tree. He called, jumped from limb to limb, and poked his head in the hole repeatedly. The light was wonderful, and I couldn't resist taking lots of photos. I call it "New Dad in the Waiting Room."

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Derby Day Birding

In Louisville, the Kentucky Derby is second only to Christmas as the holiday people look forward to the most. The schools close on Oaks Day (the day before the Derby when the Kentucky Oaks race is run) and offices close early, since so many employees have taken the afternoon off.

Years ago, in my younger days, I too enjoyed the Derby festivities immensely. We bought new clothes to wear to parties and the Derby Breakfast with my in-laws. You get dressed up and have brunch at the country club with friends and relatives not seen any other time of year. Men wear jackets in pastel yellow, green and pink, pulled out of the closet for this one day, along with a horsey themed tie. Women buy huge hats. They don't have to wear sunglasses because of the shade under the brim. "Celebrities" come to town for the Derby Parade and big parties with other celebrities. I, of course, don't even know who any of them are. It's next to impossible to get a hotel room, unless it was reserved last year at Derby time. We rarely had tickets to the Derby itself, so before taking the sitter home, we would get flowers to plant in the yard that afternoon. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

In my "mature" days, however, I celebrate Derby differently. I remember wearing heels to the track, and standing in long lines for the ladies room. Standing so long, in fact, that the betting window closed before I could place a bet. I remember standing in line to get a bus back to the parking lot for our car, then waiting in traffic to get home. Now I have more sense than to spend a day standing in line just to lose money betting on horses.

The first Saturday in May is the height of the spring bird migration, and I get much more enjoyment going to the Falls to go birding than all those lines at the track. Last year Brainard Palmer-Ball stopped by, but today I just went by myself, and had a wonderful time. I actually "pished" and the birds came to see me!! I counted over 30 species at the Fall today, not including a couple I didn't really get a good look at. More importantly, many of them were the elusive warblers, AND I got photos of some! Hallelujah! This is much better than winning a few bucks at the track!

Every year, the Northern Oriole sits in the branches, taunting me, daring me to find it. Today, he made the mistake of sitting on the topmost branch of a small tree, and I actually took his picture. Later, I started whistling at a bird who whistled back and forth with me for about 15 minutes. Then, he flew in to see who the stranger was in the neighborhood, and I saw the Oriole again. So now we are good buddies.

Birds of prey are among my favorites, and both the Osprey and a Red Winged Hawk came soaring over in the stiff breeze. Vultures circled in kettles as the sun warmed the land after heavy rain overnight. The Ospreys are building a nest in a power tower, and I saw the male hunting fish for his mate. He stopped to take a quick bath in the river, then went back to work. Later, I saw him with a fish in talon, heading down towards the nest.

Today's big find, however, was the Scarlet Tanager that I missed a few weeks ago. Apparently he has decided to hang around, and came when I pished and squeaked. I think I saw the Swainson's Thrush, and know I saw a Yellow Rumped Warbler and lots of Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers. It's funny to watch one of them come up with a worm in beak, which it proceeds to beat to death on a branch before eating! Tent catepillars are like McDonald's for these small birds. Worms in a bag, yum. I slipped through the mud, and over the dead tree trunks down by the creek. A large bird flew by, and I discovered a Green Heron on a branch, the first I have seen at the falls. Several Indigo Buntings kept me company as I wandered through the woods.

I sent a few pictures to Brainard to ID. I wasn't sure what they are, and always hope it will be something new to add to my Life List. Overall, this was a much more satisfying day than spending the day elbow to elbow with one of the largest crowds in Derby history.

Flowing Stream

I am River.
I am Movement in the River of Time
I flow from the Rock, and wear it down
I give life to the Forest and Flower and Bird
I destroy and I build as I pass from mountain to sea
I change the face of the Earth.
The burbling water flows over rocks, while birds sing in the background, and the sun leaves dapples of shade and light. It doesn't get much better than this. Although the Red River flows through the Gorge, water is not the primary eroder of the rocks. Rock Bridge is the only bridge that was actually formed by a stream. The stream also makes a waterfall, which is the perfect place to eat lunch and cool your feet if the day is hot.

Stream life includes fish fingerlings (trout, someone said), and small creatures we could not identify. Freshwater eels? Water snakes? Really long pollywogs? Your guess is as good as mine, or probably better. I always estimated the flood level of a stream by the height of the leaves caught in brances along the shore. This stream was in a rather narrow valley, and the dead leaves hung in the branches a good 15 feet above our heads in places. When there is a flash flood, this is not a place to be.

Listen to the song of the stream. It soothes whatever worries you may have, and puts them into perspective.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Dawn Chorus

I am Bird.
I Sing from above in the River of Time
I fly swiftly, watching all in the Forest
I hide in the branches and leaves
I may leave the Forest in Fall, but return again each Spring
I make the Forest dance.

When we drove into the parking lot at the lodge, we were greeted by our old friend, the Red-eyed Vireo, calling, "Here I am, where are you?" Ah, this is going to be a good birding weekend.

The air conditioners in the lodge at Natural Bridge State Park hadn't been turned on yet, so we all slept with the door cracked open a bit. About 5:00 am, the Dawn Chorus awakened us to a more pleasant alarm than usual. The chorus continued all day, whether we were around the lodge, or hiking up a trail.

A friend asked, "What's that little brown bird we see?" "Tail cocked up and sings REALLY loud? That's a Carolina Wren." Sure enough, the loudest bird on any branch ended up being the Carolina Wren. You wouldn't expect something that small could make so much noise. I am familiar with the songs our local Wrens sing, but these mountain birds came up with a few more I hadn't heard before. When you throw your head back, you can sing louder, they say.

On our first trail in the Red River Gorge, we heard birds singing non-stop along a rippling brook. It was very pleasant, but frustrating too. We would recognize a mnemonic of a song we heard on the CD, but could not place it with a bird. The first bird we actually saw on this trail was back at the parking lot, and it was a Louisiana Waterthrush, our first warbler. The field guide does not list the mnemonics used on the Peterson CD. "Weesa, weesa, weesa" said one invisible bird in the treetops, while another answered, "A-weet, a-weet, a-weet-teo." Our friends thought we were nuts. From now on, I carry the Peterson booklet that came with the CD - Birding by Ear. It does have an index in the back based on the song. Eventually we overcame a bad case of Warbler-neck (a common birder's ailment in the spring) and found the black and yellow Hooded Warbler singing A-weet, a-weet, a-weet-teo, and the Black and White Warbler who serenaded with Weesa, weesa, weesa, or the Squeaky Wagon song. No pictures, of course. The both move too fast among the branches for photography. I did get a picture of the Northern Parula, though, but the Waterthrush came out a little too fuzzy to post here. I've always said that when I can find and identify Warblers with ease, I will truly be a birding expert.

Since our lodge rooms were in the treetops, I expected to see all kinds of birds right from the balcony. Our room was at one end of the building, and I didn't see quite as many as expected. The great little Wren pictures are from our balcony. A couple Eastern Phoebes came to visit and sing, their Fee-b-lee sounding nothing like the clear Fee-bee of the Carolina Chickadee. A pair of American Crows must have been nesting on the hillside since they swooped back and forth outside my balcony all day long. When the sun shines on their feathers, a Crow can become beautifully iridescent. The other end of the lodge was next to some elm trees bearing seeds. I never would have thought of elm seeds as bird food, but we found Cardinals, Goldfinch and Indigo Buntings, and a Mama squirrel chowing down on them right outside the dining room window. I doubt that the birds every watch the people dining nearby the way I leaned out the window to watch the birds at their dinner!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Trillium Triumphant

I am Flower.
I am Beauty in the River of Time
I bring color for each season
I feed the soul of any who knows me
I live only a short while, and then my time is over
I give Joy to the Forest.

There are two things to remember about wildflowers. First, timing is everything. Either I am too early, and they haven't bloomed yet, or too late, and the blossoms wither by the time I walk in the woods. Invasives such as Garlic Mustard can crowd out the native wildflowers in many places. At Natural Bridge we arrived for the peak of the Redbud blossoms, but also the peak, surely, of both the Trilliums and the Violets. Second, if you want good wildflower photos, be very careful about your depth of field, or get a macros lens. I have so many photos I thought would be very dramatic, but the focus is slightly before or behind my intended subject.

We saw Ozark Trillium, Large White Trillium (which turn pink as they age), Southern Red Trillium and Red Trillium for sure. The blossoms on many bent over, facing the ground. Some had petals with wavy edges, and others had smooth edges. Sometimes the three sepals looked like green flower petals. The flower book mentioned one variety which smells like decaying tissue, but I don't thing we saw that one, which is just as well.

Violets grow in the yards here in Louisville until the green grass is overcome by purple. I did not realize that violets come in so many different sizes and colors. Again, my photos did not focus well on these small darlings, so I'll just mention them. There were white violets no larger than the nail on my little finger - so delicate. We saw some Field Pansy, with petals like violets, but faces like pansies. Arrowhead Violets, with pointed leaves instead of heart shaped, grew some places. The Long-Spurred Violet had a tail, or "spur", in the back. Yellow violets rounded out the color spectrum.

Flowers we plant in gardens have wild varieties we found along the trail, including Dwarf Iris, Wild Geranium and Wild Phlox. We did not see any Lady's Slippers or Jack in the Pulpit. The May Apples were beginning to set their blossoms, but it was a bit early for them to bloom. The Wood Betony with hooded flowers growing in a whorled cluster was something new for me, as was the Star Chickweed. A Large-Flowered Bellwort looked like a small yellow mop, hanging upside down. Perhaps if I get tired of chasing birds around I may take up flower photography. I'd love to go back to Natural Bridge many times through the Spring to follow the progression of wildflower blossoms. I'd better retire first, though, so I can go through the week. There just aren't enough weekends to see everything!