Monday, January 31, 2011

Fair Weather Water Fowl

Part of the day Saturday was spent along the water looking for ducks. Jefferson Overlook, just across the Ohio River from Louisville, has a collection of resident birds. The wild and the domestic ducks are quite friendly with each other, and hybrids are the result. I call this one a Tuxedo Duck and they are common along that stretch of the river.
The Ohio River is also a winter home for gulls that summer on the Great Lakes. I can't count high enough to get them all at the Falls of the Ohio. People are surprised to see gulls here in the middle of the country, but they are just looking for water that doesn't freeze.
Domestic grey geese claim ownership of the Overlook, and lord it over all the other birds. I always wonder how they got settled here, since they don't belong to anyone. A man brought a bag of cracked corn to spread around, and all the ducks and geese rushed over for a snack.
Canada Geese are both winter visitors and year round residents here in Kentucky. They appreciated a chance to find unfrozen water for a change too.
The area just above McAlpine Dam on the Indiana side of the river is a popular birding spot too. The bay ducks are a challange since they spread out across the middle of the river. As soon as you find one in binoculars or scope, it dives under. There's no predicting where it may surface again. Today I saw Hooded Mergansers, Common Mergansers, Common Goldeneye, Ring Neck Ducks, Buffleheads and the White Winged Scoter, a rare bird that has been hanging around the dam for weeks now.
I love these Hooded Mergansers - such a big head and little bill!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Rough Legged Hawks!

Well, you know what the weather has been like this winter. First it snows, then it melts for one day of mud, then it snows again. Very few sunny days have blessed us. But today the sun shone. The sky was blue. It's Saturday, and time to go BIRDING! My friend Ryan who works at the landfill (see his blog and great photos) has seen both dark morph and light morph Rough Legged Hawks out there for months now. My first attempt to find them a few weeks ago was unsuccessful, but I'm determined to find this life bird today.
Ryan says to watch for the white rump that spreads to the top of the tail. As I pulled into a muddy road along the front of the landfill, but away from the actual dumping, I saw just such a bird right in front of my car. What luck! But, you guessed it, by the time I stopped the car and got out with the camera, it had landed to eat its prey on a hillside, then took off and disappeared again. Not to be dismayed, I got out my spotting scope and started scanning the horizon. The landfill builds a barrier hill so the dumping cannot be seen from the road, and this hill forms a horizon about half to three-quarters of a mile from my position. OK with the scope, but not close enough for good photos, even with my 24x zoom lens. Here's what I could see with full zoom, but no Photoshop magnification at all. Unlike the Brownsville, TX, landfill (which is on the Texas Birding Trail), the local company doesn't allow people to come inside where the birds are. Sometimes both Red Tailed and Rough Legged Hawks would perch on the ventilator pipes (or whatever they are) sticking up out of the ground. Lacking trees, you use what you can find when you need a rest. Large long-winged birds would glide just above the horizon, then dip down over the other side, out of sight. Some were vultures, of course. Others had shorter wings, and close examination showed Red Tailed Hawks in abundance. At one time I had four in sight, as they dove down at each other. Is it almost time for Red Tail mating season? Then one bird turned sideways showing that distinctive white rump again. Of course, clouds of Starlings rose and fell on a regular basis. A helicopter buzzed us, but the birds seemed unimpressed. One little Kestrel looked over the hunting grounds too.
Ryan said that Rough Legged Hawks breed in the Artic, and the barren landfill provides plenty of rodent prey in an open area similar to the northern tundra. I don't think we see them on a regular basis here in Kentucky. This winter birders have reported Rough Legged Hawks, Short Eared Owls, and Scoters in this area - none of which are common around here. Flying in a mixture of birds, I had some trouble telling this hawk from the Vulture, until the light hit the tail right. This is the light morph, but other pictures I've seen of the dark morph can resemble a Turkey Vulture, the body is so dark, and Rough Legged Hawks will hold their wings in a slight dihedral like Vultures. I think I may have seen the dark morph, but don't have any photos to verify it even to myself. I especially enjoyed watching these large hawks flapping to hover over a given spot, watching for a rat, no doubt. Sometimes they seemed to kite, just staying in place without flapping at all. Sounds like a lot of work for a bird with a 56" wingspan. Too cool! Vultures are so co-operative! They glide slowly and circle back to the same spot so you can try again if you missed the first time. No hurry - the dead animals aren't going anywhere. Vultures are much easier to focus on than speedier hawks. While enjoying the break in the weather, I saw birds other than these hawks, but I wanted to post about them first. I'll be back later with the water fowl I found today, plus a wonderful hike in the country with a dear friend.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Are We a Good Pair, or What?

I am married to the perfect man. He wrote this article, and I wanted to put it on the blog.

“Eileen and John brought in some mighty fine large rats last night." This is the way my better half, Kathy started a conversation one morning. Strange talk? Weird, disgusting topic? Not for two volunteer naturalists. Kathy volunteers at Raptor Rehab, and she had spent the previous evening bagging rats to freeze for later preparation as meals for the raptors. Her opening comment led to a lengthy, in-depth knowledgeable discussion about which raptors eat their prey whole, prefer rats to mice, eat all parts of the rat, or like only particular parts of the rats.

Naturalists can carry on passionate, informative, and interesting discussions about scat, cockroaches, animals that eat their own poop, those creatures that live better through vomiting, and much more. Are we talking shop? Well, yes and no. Yes, because it is what we do each day, and no, because as volunteers we are acting out our creative passions solely for the sheer joy of the experience, not worrying about whether a paycheck results.

Volunteering in natural settings has definitely changed us; we never talked about any of these things when we were dating, 38 years ago. Now we get up before dawn on cold, blustery mornings to search for birds and other wildlife that are probably ignoring their own parent's advice not to be out and about. We look for "bare" trees in winter, and use what clues we can find to identify the species. We hike sandy stretches where there's not much life, but there are tracks- are those from a snake, a lizard or a turtle? We deliberately seek out bogs, marshes, swamps, deserts and other isolated areas, becoming a part of the community of nature. We glean information and ideas from caring and inspirational native plant and wildflower professionals, converting our subdivision yard from grass to a wildlife habitat with water, cover, food and space for wildlife.

I’ve challenged my own prejudices, finding out that everything has a niche in the web of life, and there is no “good or “bad” in nature. I once believed bats to be ugly and harmful, and now marvel at flying mammals that devour mosquitoes. As volunteer naturalists we are constantly examining, discovering, wondering, learning by observation, following up with books and the internet, and discussing anew. In nature, we are never bored and never truly alone. Joy awaits. Ain't life grand- rats and all?

You've got to admit it. Not many women are as lucky as I am!

Sunday, January 09, 2011

January Miscellany

What with the holidays and all, I haven't done much concentrated birding in the last few weeks. Especially since the weather seems to descend on us regularly! But, if the sun is shining I like to take a walk with my camera to see what's around. I can't resist photos of Turkey Vultures, but you probably knew that already.
At Creasey Mahan I followed a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers around for half and hour one afternoon. They sounded like jackhammers pounding on the trees. If I caught a glimpse of one, it quickly moved to the other side of the tree or behind some branches. This little Downy Woodpecker was much more cooperative, and MUCH quieter!
The Kentucky Bird List emails have talked about Rough Legged Hawks in many places, including our own landfill, something I don't recall seeing before. Our friend Ryan Ankeny's Landfill Birdblog keeps up with them. Ryan has wonderful photos of a dark phase Rough Legged you should see. He works as a biologist at the landfill, so has great opportunities.
We saw this bird, and followed it around for a while trying for a good look at it, hoping it was something other than a Red Tailed Hawk. From the back, it has a stripped tail like a juvenile Red Tail. But from the front, it lacks a belly band of any sort, just spots.
I was hoping it might be a female Harrier, but on the few short flights it took did not see the white rump of a Harrier. Is there a facial disk, or is that just my wishful thinking? What do you think it is? I've also asked Ryan and will let you know his verdict.
Around home, the little Dark-eyed Junco was the first bird of the new year for me.
Our Carolina Wren loves eating peanuts from the feeder. I found some leftover zickdough and put it out. The Starlings descended on it right away, but our Mockingbird chased them off.