Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Cranes

It's the Monday before Christmas. I cut my yoga class to help give meds at the Raptor Center, and started writing down everything that needs to be done before Christmas - final gifts, wrapping, groceries, laundry, menus, etc. Then I receive an email that says "We have about 4,000 Sandhill Cranes and several Whooping Cranes with them. Anyone who wants to see them should join us tomorrow morning." Well, I can't pass up an opportunity like this, can I? I'll get the Christmas stuff taken care of, eventually...
Ewing Bottoms is in the flood plain of the East Fork of the White River, near Brownstown, IN. My fellow Crane watchers were two of my expert buddies, with Swarovski scopes, and another man who lives nearby. Apparently, the Cranes did not stop here when he was a boy, only starting to arrive recently. We discussed what might have caused this change, and decided that farming practices made the difference. About 10 years ago, the farmers started to harvest the crops using machinery that stripped more of the plant stalks out of the field, while allowing seeds to drop to the ground. When it rains and the fields get muddy, the Cranes are delighted and land for a rest during migration.
They didn't seem as loud this time, although they talked constantly. We saw much more dancing than the last time we went to Ewing Bottom though. The weather changed from hazy to clearing to windy and cold. The light was never what we needed for good photos, and the cranes preferred the center of the fields, about 3/4 of a mile away from the road. No close shots today! The Whooping Cranes were the real excitement. Through the scope we could see two, three, and sometimes four Whoopers out in the field. When they took off, the Whooping Cranes were distinct, with much larger wings and black primary feathers against the white. A person from the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin drive across all the little roads around the fields, trying to find them with her radio antenna. Apparently their transmitters were broken, or the batteries had died. What a way to visit Indiana!
It was a great day for raptors too. I must have seen 12-15 Kestrels during the day. Just try to take a photo of a hovering Kestrel, while driving down a country lane, trying not to lose the guy with the good scope who leads the caravan!
We sighted a Merlin in a treetop - a lifer for me - who was chased away after a few minutes by a Kestrel who wanted that branch for himself. Several Harriers quartered the fields, and a Bald Eagle kept an eye on everyone. And yes, there will be enough time to prepare for Christmas festivities!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Robin and the Holly

December is not a time when I expect to see flocks of Robins. The male Great Horned Owl showed up with a girlfriend last Sunday, and it was wonderful to hear them hooting sweet nothings to each other as we prepared to attend the church choir concert. The owls could have been singing Christmas carols, such as Whoo, the Herald Great Horned Sings, Oh Little Owl with Pointed Ears, Oh Come All Ye Hoot Owls, or Hoot Owls We Have Heard On High. No offense to Handel, but I smiled all evening thinking about Owl Carols. I've been waiting for them to come back so I could record a movie with them, but haven't heard them since.
The Robins are all over though. Normally, we have holly berries all winter, and the Robins eat them in March on their way back north. For some reason, this year they have stripped all the berries from my bushes already. The neighbor's driveway is covered in red berries shaken down by the Robins. They eat from one branch, then fly off to another to see what's on the menu there.
My berries must be the tastiest though, because other trees in the neighborhood are still covered with crimson holly berries. After a filling lunch, they come to our creek for an ice cold bath in the stream. Brrr!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Owl Alert!

The full moon shines in a cloudless sky. As I unload the car around 6:15 tonight, I hear a sound. Whoo, Whoo, Whoo, Whoo. Not sure of the source, I politely hoot back. Whoo Whoo Whoo Whooo? After a few minutes of conversation, the owl flew off to another spot in the subdivision. I am too excited for words! A real GHO in my yard, and I saw him fly off! (This picture, of course, was taken elsewhere, but it is a handsome bird.)

My yard has several vacated hawk nests, and abundant squirrel nests, which would make dandy homes for a pair of Great Horned Owls. I would be more thrilled about owlets than I was about the Cooper's Hawks, and that's saying something! Let's all keep our fingers crossed!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Creasey Mahan Projects

Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve is one of my favorite places to volunteer, or just to explore on my own. We wish that the couple who donated the land and created the preserve had kept the name on their gate post. "Hill-O-Content" is such a descriptive name! I can imagine the contentment they must have had driving down this lane every time they came home.
The Manor is really an old four-room two-story log cabin, built in the early 1800's, and later covered in clapboard, then aluminum siding. One of our volunteers spent many hours this summer caulking and repairing the 177 window panes on the home.
Natural springs burst out from the limestone in many places on the property. Most springs feed one of the small creeks. One of the early owners decided to build a spring house over a convenient spring just downhill from the house. Cool water still bubbles through the small building, ready to preserve milk, fruits and vegetables as it did almost 200 years ago. Last fall, a windstorm blew off its tin roof, and it sat there wounded, while we searched for money to make repairs. Actually, it will be a restoration, because a new cedar shingle roof is going on, much more authentic for a structure of this age.
The builders include the grounds manager, one of the members from the board of directors, and two other volunteers with terrific skills. As I watched them work, I felt the stream of time flowing through the building. When the first construction crew worked here, they had to quarry the stone, mix the mortar and place all the stones. Before putting on a roof, they had to cut the timber, make the nails, and cut the cedar to make the shakes or shingles to put on the roof. I mentioned this to our crew, and they expressed their appreciation for Home Depot which delivered all the material right to the site!
The Manor has four rooms in the original part, including this wonderful dining room. Each room has its own fireplace, since that was the only heat source in the 1800's. The hill above the spring house has been burned off and reseeded with Kentucky native plants, such as Little Bluestem grass. In the spring, the hill glows softly with wildflowers. In the fall, the Bluestem looks almost reddish, despite its name.
At the edge of the meadow, a Red Shouldered Hawk perches in a bare tree, searching for a tasty mouse for breakfast, while warming herself in the bright morning sun.
Since the first frost has not arrived yet, even though it is mid-November, a few brave flowers continue to bloom, including this Black-eyed Susan, some violets, and of course, the ever hardy dandelions.
Goldenrod seeds look like blossoms themselves, nodding in the breeze.
As you enter the main drive, stately maples line the lane. Well, they used to be stately. Now they are home to woodpeckers, insects and shelf fungus on the dead and dying branches. Maples don't give up easily though, and each tree has enough living branches to survive. Smaller trees grow between their elders, so they will be ready to take their place when the final windstorm blows down the larger trees.
When the preserve was established in 1975, there were few trees at all. Since the property was a working farm, mowed pasture for livestock was the common condition, but the donors wanted to create an arboretum, so the USDA was called in for advice. Their recommendation included planting hundreds of Autumn Olives, so that was done. Sigh... It seems that every story I hear about plants now regarded as undesirable includes the government recommendation that it be planted. Now the grounds manager is clearing the Autumn Olive out with a skip loader, simply ripping it up to clear the understory, and cutting large vines, both grape and poison ivy, which are strangling the trees. From the cutback done last year, native plants are making a good recovery already, so everyone is hopeful.

As a volunteer, I get to teach classes about fossils and birds, wander around taking lots of pictures, help plan events, and I redesigned their website. Offering is easy, but it's hard to get folks to let you work on their website, no matter how badly it needs it, so I really appreciate Tavia letting me do this. Also, Tavia Cathcart, the director, is a wonderful expert on plants and wildlife, so I have a built in resource for mystery flowers when I find them!

Monday, November 09, 2009

Falling Around

Although I haven't posted much to the blog lately, I have still been pretty busy. I realized this when I downloaded over 150 photos from my camera today, taken at four different locations and times! The fall has been beautiful this year! Yes, I say that every year, but it's always true! Now that November has arrived, most of the fall colors have dropped to the ground, but we can still enjoy them in photographs. David Sibley, of Sibley's Guide to Birds fame, was in town recently for a book signing. He's branching out and his latest endeavor is Sibley's Guide to Trees. The next day he came to Bernheim Forest for a tree walk. I have to admire anyone who spends so many years in one field, and has the courage to take on something entirely different, then go and talk to people about it in an unfamiliar area of the country. He discussed different things to watch for in the bark and buds of trees this time of year to help make an identification. Of course, when the Cooper's Hawks and Turkey Vultures flew over, it was natural to call our attention to the birds as well.
Cooper's Hawk at Bernheim Forest
The winter birds are arriving. Cedar Waxwings are still around, and I've seen several Juncos in my backyard, and heard a White Throated Sparrow. At Putney Pond, a pair of Hooded Mergansers paddled around at sunset.
The remaining scarlet leaves are breathtaking, but I've been attracted to the various seed heads left on the grasses and plants now that the flowers are gone. They are so delicate looking! Much of my time has been spent working on computer projects for my volunteer organizations. They both decided to join Facebook, after seeing recommendations for non-profits to use that as a free marketing tool along with their regular websites. I've always resisted getting into Facebook, but had to start an account to create a page for the non-profit. I got the page created, but have become completely frustrated when trying to get a username assigned to the page. It attached itself to my profile, not the nature preserve! Then I found that you can't get rid of a personal username at all. I checked with someone else who does this sort of thing, and the pages we saw for my login don't look anything like the ones she sees as administrator for her organization. Grrr! Has anyone else had any luck with Facebook? I'm about to recommend that we just use mass emails and forget Facebook altogether.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Comic Sans Saves the Day

I'm not a big time Halloween person. I don't dress up, and I only get candy that I don't like. Otherwise I'd pig out on it before any little guys showed up. We did enlarge the front porch so Trick or Treaters no longer fall off it backwards into the bushes. However, in my spirit of Halloween, I hope you enjoy this non-caloric comic sans opera. (Remember, I spent 11 years in the IT business. Videos about fonts as people are funny to me!)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fungi are Fun, Guys!

Bread Dough Mushroom

It's been fairly cool and wet this summer and fall, perfect fungi weather. When we go for a hike, I may not find birds, but the fungi are flourishing fantastically! Now, here's the problem. I don't have a good fungi field guide, and when I try to look online, all I find are Latin names. I don't do Latin, thank you. So I have fun making up my own names if no one else in the group knows. I ordered what looks like a good book, and it won't be here for a while yet, so just enjoy my imagination on these. After all, mushrooms can be as pretty as flowers, can't they?
Chocolate Bread Dough

Yellow Frillies

Witch's Butter (someone else came up with this name) - a jelly fungi. Squeeze and it slimes all over your fingers.

Purple Umbrellas

Dead Man's Finger - That's it's real name, and apparently it's fairly rare since the naturalist was excited to find it. I would have called it Duck Head myself.

Frilly Pumpkin Turkey Tails

Birds Nest - this is the real name. If you brush against them the "eggs" burst and the spores are released to the air.

More jelly fungi

White Branch Straddler - it only grew on the bottom of this small branch.

Shelf fungi are fairly common, but this one was quite large. The naturalists pulled one from the tree trunk to show us its root, which was larger than his thumb, as you can see.
Little Orange Pearls

We found a tree at Bernheim that had 10 or 12 different kinds of fungi along its dead trunk. Between the hurricane in Sept 2008 and the Jan 2009 ice storm, Kentucky has an abundance of dead trees. A real fungi feast! We noticed that the fungi and lichens tended to start growing in the crevasses in the bark. You can see them lined up in rows - first a row of Turkey Tails, then a row of green moss and lichens.

Tortellini Mushroom

One of the nicest things about fungi is their willingness to pose as long as you need for the perfect photo. They don't blow in the wind, and they don't move around just as you take the shot. I appreciate that in nature!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Reelfoot Birds

We got to see some birds not normally found in the Louisville area. Well, someone said these were White Fronted Geese exploring the lake at Big Oak State Park in Missouri. Now that I'm home and checking the field guide, I don't know what they are. Any ideas out there?
The Reelfoot naturalist let us go into the large flight cage for his two Bald Eagles, who were pretty cool about having visitors. Plenty of wild Eagles flew over our parking lot, but they were too high for good pictures.
From our weekend stay, I'd have to say that Great Egrets were the most common bird we saw. They seem very territorial. Each morning we saw an Egret on the same branches around the lakeshore by our resort. If you walked too close though, they flew off, then returned in just a few minutes.
On our hike around the edge of the lake, we saw a handful of American Pelicans preening. It looks like they are standing on water, but there are lots of submerged branches to take advantage of. It only looks like a bird miracle.
The exciting part came when hundreds of Pelicans lifted on a thermal Sunday morning, wheeling and turning until they were high enough to start flying towards their destination farther south. From one angle, there were invisible, then they turned with a flash of white wings, and the next turn made them look black. It was simply fabulous!

A Bald Eagle called while we visited, and apparently I've turned off both the recording and sound making abilities of my camera, so there is no sound. I pieced together some individual shots to get the characteristic movements. Hmm, I'll have to get into the camera setup again so I get sound with my movies.