Thursday, April 30, 2009

Blue After the Rain

These two photos make up for a day of rain, cold, and bad lighting.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Patience, Persistence and Perspective

Yellow Chat
"Is Muddlety a place or an attitude?" we asked our guides this morning. As it turns out, we passed a sign to a place called Muddlety, but it just as well describes our bird watching trip in the rain. Not an absolute downpour, thank goodness, but a steady, drenching rain that blurs your binoculars and camera lens. I kept fanny pack, camera and binoculars under my raincoat, pulling out the needed item for immediate use, then tucking it back into the relative dry of the raincoat. It felt like being pregnant with optics. Maybe I could hatch a Swarovski binocular if I'm careful during pregnancy!
Prairie Warbler
Connie and Keith gave us extra doses of patience and persistence this morning. Every so often, they stopped the van, rolled down the windows and listened intently. "Is it?" they glanced at each other. "Everyone out! You want to see this," and we all piled out of the van like kids doing a Chinese Fire Drill. Despite the rain, we found Blue Winged Warbler, the sought for Cerulean Warbler, and heard the rare Swainson's Warbler. Although we stopped to listen and look several times, I think there was actually only ONE Cerulean which simply followed us down the road. "Watch me make these guys come out of their natural habitat one more time," it said to all the other birds. We also saw lots of Lesser Rain Warblers, making the leaves move each time they landed or took off. We were unable to find the elusive White Billed Rain Warbler though. Better luck next time!
Blue Winged Warbler
This trip includes a trip to the Big Tree, estimated to be about 300 years old. As we ate lunch by the tree, chain saws buzzed on the next hill, and we were close to tears listening to at least 6 different trees fall to the ground. The crash echos across the valley, as if the whole forest is mourning. Surprisingly, the birds did not seem to be affected by the noise and destruction.
The forest doesn't give up. We saw one stump bravely sending up shoots.
In a forest, your perspective should not be limited to the birds and the trees. This little snail certainly was ready for a road trip to explore new places. Keith found a Red Spotted Newt which was ready to climb right up on Susan's shoulder!
British Soldier lichens live in a world of their own, completely limited to the tops of some old fence posts. I can image small creatures viewing this as the entire universe, which is correct given their perspective.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

New River Warbler Wars

Northern Parula
People tend to think of birdsong as only a beautiful part of nature, to be enjoyed in the spring. For the birds, singing in the spring is a much more serious matter. There are territories to be established and protected against intruders. This is war!

Blackburnian Warbler

As we walk among the trees, we hear a Parula singing to the left. Then another answers from the right. Listening carefully, we can sometimes establish the "front" between two competing males. The iPod calls in one of them. "Who are you and what are you doing on my turf?" he demands. If no other male of his species is discovered he goes back to foraging. Occasionally, we manage to attract both males, and then the chase begins. Bird ethics prescribe only limited use of bird calling like this, to allow the birds to live their lives without interruption and needless expenditure of energy needed for attracting a mate and raising a brood. I agree, but it is fun to actually see the bird in question, rather than marking most of my list as "heard only."

Black-throated Blue Warbler

I am so glad for those hours in the car listening to the birdsong CDs now. At least I have some clue as to what birds are around, even if I have trouble finding the little trillers in the branches straight above my head. The trip leaders here at New River are wonderful about making sure everyone gets to see the bird of the moment. I don't have enough words to describe the bright bright orange in the Blackburnian Warbler we found this morning. Bare branches add to the challenge of getting a good photo. The squeaky wagon sound did in fact come from a Black and White Warbler. Cute little Black Capped Chickadees (the northern guys) cleaned out a nest hole, removing wood chips and dumping them faster than the speed of light almost.

Black and White Warbler

Today's trip climbed 4,000 feet in elevation to Cranberry Glade, a trip to the boreal bogs of New England, right here in the Appalachians of West Virginia. The National Park Service has a boardwalk to protect the fragile bog habitat. Imagine this in the fall, with the trees and cranberry bushes all turning red.

Eastern Skunk Cabbage

The boggy environment does not carry many nutrients in the soil, and we found several carnivorous plants, which eat insects to obtain nitrogen they can't get from the soil. I've seen Skunk Cabbage in wet areas of the Pacific Northwest, and Pitcher plants in coastal Alabama where similar bogs can be found. The Eastern Skunk Cabbage produces its stinky blossom on the ground, before sprouting any leaves. The Western Skunk Cabbage grows a bright yellow blossom on a tall stalk, much different than the Eastern.

Pitcher Plant - Carnivorous

Due to the higher elevation in the Glade, spring is several weeks behind what we see elsewhere. Few trees are blooming, but Marsh Marigolds brighten the landscape in all directions. The food at the festival is excellent! All meals are included in the package, and they are far better than what I would find at the neighborhood fast food restaurants if left to my own resources. A hot breakfast greeted us in an open gazebo above the Gorge at 6:00 am. Heaven bless a good caterer! A display of moths clinging to the restroom walls under a lamp added an extra treat. This luna moth wins the prize for Flashiest Moth. Several other small greys would have been completely invisible on their normal tree bark perches (this was was park brown.) A few little white moths were just asking for trouble against the dark wall.

Tomorrow it may rain, but we are all ready for it. Let the birding continue!

Monday, April 27, 2009

News from the Woods

Yellow Trillium

Good Evening America! There is good news and bad news from Pine Mountain, Kentucky, where we spent the weekend with the Kentucky Society for Natural History. The good news is the beautiful spring in the mountains. Wildflowers bloom and birds sing. The deer like to eat the trillium, but we saw enough different varieties to be happy. Elk roam the mountains, leaving large piles of droppings. All the streams run merrily downstream, and Phoebes start to sing at 5:00 am, whether you want to wake up or not. The society's experts taught all of us wonderful new things about the world around us. Winding roads not withstanding, all is right with the world.

Wild Ginger

Canadian Violet

American Toads

Cawood Waterfall

In the evening, however, news of danger in the woods smacked us in the face. A grad student talked about invasive slugs. We learned about the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, an invasive aphid like creature which leaves white eggs on the hemlock branches, and will eventually kill the hemlock trees. American Chestnut, American Elm, Dogwood have all faced disease and lost or still struggle in the battle. Now the Hemlock joins them. Another speaker told us about White Nose Syndrome in bats, which causes infected bats to awake during hibernation, and eventually to starve to death. This was only discovered in 2006, yet some caves in New England have lost 90% of their bat populations in this short time. The biologists are getting desperate because they cannot determine which this is, how it started or how to combat it. Forest fragmentation was the final address.

You get the picture. The days were wonderful, and the nightly presentations so very depressing. Was it a good weekend? Well, that depends on what time of day you ask. My stomach still hurts when I think about it. I suffered a severe attack of White Knuckle Syndrome myself when we left the conference, because our Google driving directions took us over the top of Pine Mountain on a one lane road with no guard rails, and a two-lane road across Black Mountain, all within about an hour. It took almost 7 hours to drive across the mountains and work our way to an interstate highway to reach Fayetteville, WV.

Now we are in West Virginia at the New River Birding Fest and had great success with our warblers this morning. We also found many of the Blogger Flock and enjoy getting to know each other. Birders representing many states made the trip. Jim McCormac not only knows his birds and birdsong, but flowers and things that live under rocks.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Little Rain Must Fall

Sunday morning we went on a bird walk with Beckham Bird Club. Well, you would really have to say we went on a bird "slop" since it poured like crazy all morning, and we slopped around Bernheim Forest anyway with our brave leader, Eddie. Since we were the only participants, I gave him the chance to back out and go home, but he said he would have done some birding even if no one showed up, despite the rain. Eddie is a dedicated birder. I didn't take any photos then, not wanting to get the camera wet, so I returned to Bernheim this morning in the bright sunshine, which rapidly changed to cold, windy, and more rain showers. Ah, well, I'm here. Might as well stay for a while.

Barn Swallows nest under the eaves of the Garden Pavilion, swooping down at your head when you get too close, twittering angrily. The females should have more confidence in their nests plastered high in the rafters. She can't even be seen if she stays down inside the nest.

Nevin Lake hosts Tree Swallows and Purple Martins as well as the Barn Swallows. They all swoop over the water at the same time after flying insects. It's a wonder they don't run into each other once in a while. I'd hate to be the Air Traffic Controller over the lake for these birds.

"Honey, I'm home."
The Brown Thrasher says, "What, you again? Don't you ever give up?"

Titmice and Robins abound and sing loudly. A fledgling Robin sat quietly in a small tree, letting visitors get within about 3 feet. Isn't it a little early for them to be fledged, let alone hatched? It's still cold out there. Hundreds of Cedar Waxwings sat silhouetted in the very tops of the trees eating blossoms.

Driving up the hill with the window open, I hear a loud whinny, then see the scarlet and black flash of a Pileated Woodpecker. Now some birders pronounce this "pie-lee-ated." My mother-in-law always said "pill-ee-ated" and that's been good enough for me!

Two squirrels chased each other around the trees, but one of them looked a little unusual. I think this is a Fox Squirrel, while we see Grey Squirrels most often around here. And I thought it was hard to get a bird to sit still for a photograph!

We will be on a marathon birding and blooming trip beginning this Friday at Pine Mountain Settlement School with the Kentucky Society for Natural History. On Sunday, we will then drive across the mountains to Fayetteville, WV for the New River Birding Festival. I can't wait! I just hope there will be time to work with my photos each day and post to this blog. From the schedules it looks like I'll be doing good just to get to bed and then up the next morning in time!

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Pond of Eden

Grandpa, this pond is a pretty good place for us turtles, isn't it?

Yes, son, this is a wonderful place for us to live. The pond is small and the water gets warm. We have wonderful logs to climb on for sunning.

We have plenty of our favorite food to eat - plants, tadpoles, small fish and bugs. Little turtles like you should leave the Bullfrog tadpoles for your elders to eat though. Some of those wigglers are so big they might want to take a bite out of you! Heh, heh, heh. We have everything the Great Turtle intended for us to have. Yep, you could just about call this the Pond of Eden.

We don't have to climb up into big hollow trees like the raccoons. Imagine climbing that high, and finding some other critter in your house!

Just remember, your shell is your protection, but keep an eye out anyway. When human children come along, especially if they come close, be ready to slide into the water. Sometimes, they like to throw rocks and things at us. And above all, don't let them catch you to take you home as a pet. Shudder! Even the thought of it makes my shell crawl. Thank the Great Turtle every night that you live free.

And someday, when you have grand-turtles of your own, tell them about your old Grandpa, and your days at the Pond of Eden.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter Parade

"Omigosh, Dick! Look in the backyard. There's a Mama Mallard and about 12 tiny ducklings walking across the yard!!" We followed them into the neighbor's yard. Those short duck legs can really go fast. "Keep together, children. There's safety in numbers." But when the parade went past a downspout, some of the ducklings couldn't figure out how to get over it. "Help Mama!" they peeped. She and all the others came back for the stragglers and she decided to go a different direction after all. By now, a crowd gathered as the neighbors out for a walk spotted all the commotion. "Mama, are we there yet?" It sounds the same no matter whose children are asking.

When we put in the stream, only 3 days ago, we hoped to get birds to come, but never dreamed the birds would be so large, or so soon!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Backyard Wilderness

We have always wanted to live by running water. The sound of moving water gives you instant serenity. However, that serenity just wasn't worth packing up to move to the country somewhere, to say nothing of the additional maintenance required for any amount of acreage bigger than a yard. The easy alternative is to bring the brook to the backyard. We weren't interested in a pond with fish, just moving water. No problem, said the pond company. They hauled in about 4.5 tons of rock and dirt, and built a small hill for the water to cascade from. A pump at the bottom sends the water back to the top again. The easement behind the fence has fine stands of moss, and lily of the valley grow in all my flower beds (whether I want them there or not), so I moved patches of both to start the landscaping. We have a fern that is at least 30 years old, and I transplanted a clump of it to the stream too. Some water plants will go well set in the water just in their pots. I'm looking for Kentucky natives where ever possible. Lights on a sensor turn on and off automatically, for dramatic nighttime effect.

The fun part is accessorizing the stream. Dick moves around some of the rocks and fossils he's been collecting for maximum effect. Every time he moves another rock even a little in the water, the flow and the sound are immediately affected. See the little gorge in the middle? By morning, the power of that little bit of water had moved all the small rocks at the bottom to the side so the liner was visible. This may be too much current for the birds to enjoy, so I placed a flat bottomed dish out of reach of the final waterfall to provide shallow still water for drinking and bathing. The dish is below ground level though, so we may not get to see the birds in it often.

The rest of the yard has been a constant mystery and delight this spring. Dick planted perennials for a large butterfly garden last summer, and we don't really remember what went where now. Every few days we peek in the pine straw for any signs of green, and push the mulch away to encourage the sprouts. Winterberry bushes looked completely dead, but yesterday I saw the first signs of small buds. He left a banana tree in the ground and just mulched it. Will it survive the winter? Some columbine seeds casually tossed in a flower bed are sprouting, but it will take a while for them to get big enough to bloom. We have seedlings for milkweed, but are waiting for the soil to warm before setting them out. There is one spot in the whole yard that gets full sun for them. Wood Poppy wins the prize for first plant to sprout and bloom.

This is all too much fun! Except for cleaning the mud off my formerly white sneakers....

Friday, April 03, 2009

Weekday Vacation- Birding

I have discovered one of the nicest parts of being retired. We don't have to wait until the weekend to take off for some terrific birding and vacationing! Kentucky brags on its state park system, and we went to Lake Cumberland State Resort Park on Wednesday and Thursday. Practically had the whole place to ourselves. There were some court personnel tied up in meetings, but no one else hiked the trails.
Every time I go birding, I learn something new. My latest discovery is that Pine Siskins go "Ziiiiippp," like they are unzipping their jeans at the end of the day! This guy says, "Sure, I always knew that. Glad you finally caught on." Chipping Sparrows trill as well as chip, and there are more Tufted Titmice at the park than any other kind of bird. When you discover things for yourself, you remember them much better than just being advised about it by someone else. I'm sure all you teachers have some fancy name for this concept.
The woodpeckers were busy doing their rat-a-tat thing. Two Downy Woodpeckers chased each other up and down and around this small tree for about 20 minutes, contesting possession of a nicer tree with lots of nesting cavities. Little guys can be aggressive too! The Pileated Woodpeckers flew through the woods, darting behind a tree and laughing at us whenever we thought we might get a picture.
Now generally, I don't like Grackles. They are loud and bossy. When the sun shines though, they have so many beautiful iridescent colors. I showed Dick this and said, "Isn't it pretty?" but he couldn't go along with that. We decided to agree that it is more colorful than one would ordinarily expect of a Grackle. When you are retired, you learn to be diplomatic. As we walked through the forest, shadows sped ahead on the path. Looking up, many vultures soared overhead, both Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures. They seemed to have fun sky surfing even as the storms roared in with 30+ mph winds over the lake.

One time, though, the shadow was not a Vulture, but a mature Bald Eagle. Too many trees for a picture, but it was still exciting. Salato Wildlife Center has two injured Eagles on exhibit for education purposes, and one of them decided it was bath time, just as we came to see them.

Editorial Comment:
Hey Google! Listen up here! We all like to upload lots of pictures for our blogs, but it's a real pain in the *#$% to have to go back for each one individually in your dialog box. If Walgreen's can let me select multiple files for simultaneous upload, why can't you?