Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Promise of Spring

In mid-February, Mother Nature has given us a break from the dreary relentless winter cold, snow and wind. Instead, we are enjoying a hint of Spring to come. Everyone notices different signs of Spring. I saw the green sprouts of wild onions and poison hemlock among the brown grasses at a park. But the bird songs are always the most reliable clue, and I begin to notice them every year after Groundhogs Day in early February. You can't mistake the conk-kor-ee of the first Red Winged Blackbird in the cattails.
But you really know Spring will come when you hear the first flock of Sandhill Cranes flying north overhead, with their unique call. Does anyone know how to describe that call? The International Crane Foundation website says they call a "loud, rattling kar-r-r-o-o-o," while the Baker Sanctuary generally describes it as a repeated series of trumpeting “garoo-a-a-a.” See, they can't come up with anything recognizable either. But you know it when you hear them, and I always smile and run outside to look. The Kentucky bird list has been full of people posting their sucess with the Cranes at the small community of Cecilia, Ky, about an hour's drive from Louisville. My birding buddy Del says our usual Crane locale in Brownstown, IN has no Cranes at all this year. Apparently the farmers planted soy beans rather than corn last year due to late season flooding, and the Cranes prefer to feed in the corn stubble.
So I got the directions, and drove out in the country this morning. The bird list has reported thousands of Cranes in Cecilia over the last few weeks. Either I'm at the tail end of the migration, or between shifts for the birds. In Indiana, we've seen them by the thousands in one or two fields, all calling at once in other years. However, this time, the largest group I saw at one time numbered about 200. Otherwise, I noticed smaller family-sized groups of 12 or so spread out in many different fields. I'm happy with my trip though, because I was able to get much closer to them for photographs than ever before. My Prius with the silent electric motor let me glide along the back roads, taking photos of birds just over the fence.
Remembering Del's comment, I did notice that more birds were in the corn fields, and only rarely did I see them in soy bean fields, and none, of course, in cattle pastures. No grain to glean there. A bit of water in a ditch or small creek is a big attration too.
Other country birds sang for me this morning too. The Meadlowlarks were particularly vocal, teasing me from the distance. The birdsong CD we have describes their song as "Spring of the Earth" and I thought they were absolutely right today. If I heard and and tried to find one, the bird always flew away if I even walked in its direction. When I don't have my camera, they will perch on a fencepost 20 feet away!
Another bird I don't find around home too much is the Horned Lark. I saw this one fly across the road before me in a brown blur. When I found it, I was delighted to hear its high pitched chi-dit, seerp/tseep, and buzzy calls. You won't hear this guy if your car window is up or the radio is turned on.
Spring makes the Cranes dance with joy too! Just watch the video I took of their dancing.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Homeward Bound

It's the last day of the NAI conference, and our first session is a bird walk with Lydia Thompson, local birding enthusiast, artist, and author of the Coastal Georgia Birding blog. Lydia explained that in this neighborhood, you go birding by the condition of the tides, not the time on the clock. Shore birds won't be feeding when the water is too high, and southern Georgia has some of the highest tides on the east coast. We managed to go when the tide was changing (although I'm still not sure if it was going out or coming in) so we had pretty good luck right there on the hotel grounds. One of our first sightings was a group of Avocets, who flew in flashing their black and white wings, then settled down to feed. I couldn't tell if they were swimming or walking, they moved so quickly. Lydia says they all move in unison to stir up the prey and send it to the open beaks of their neighbors, so everyone gets to eat.
A little later on, we checked the exposed oyster beds, and found some (you guessed it) Oyster Catchers. They have particularly strong beaks and feet to walk on the sharp oyster shells without getting hurt, and to open them for the juicy morsels. I like their bright red bills.
A park ranger said that the oyster is the most important thing on the coast. Everyone and everything likes to eat it, it filters the water to clean it, and the shells are used for construction, as tools by the Native Americans, and to build up the shoreline itself. When it was time to go back inside for the last session, I decided to play hookey and continue birding for a while, especially when a brilliant orange Oriole flew into a nearby tree, glowing in the sunshine! Before we left the island, Lydia directed us to a small fresh water pond we hadn't found before. Hooded Mergansers shared the shore with Egrets, Herons, Vultures, turtles and an alligator!
In the evening, more birds come in for a choice roosting spot for the night, but we couldn't stay any longer, and finally headed down the road towards home. As we drive up I-95, we notice red flower buds swelling on the maple trees. Have faith! Spring will come again! Next year the Region 3 conference will be in Nashville, TN, a mere three hours from Louisville. We are planning to go again to reconnect with our interpreter friends.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Do you give talks or tours? Do you interact with visitors to help them understand exhibits at your site? Do you plan talks, tours, or exhibits? Do you visit schools and other places to present educational programs associated with a heritage site? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you may be an interpreter. Interpretation is a mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and the meanings inherent in the resource. ~ National Association for Interpretation
Anyone who has been to a park, museum or historical site at least once has probably seen a ranger or volunteer give a presentation about that location. In the business, these are known as "interpretive presentations." Hopefully, it has been exciting and inspiring as well as informative. Unfortunately, you may have been subjected to a dry, dull, boring presentation, making you reluctant to ever go to such an event again in your life. The National Association for Interpretation is a group dedicated to training and certifying interpreters, enabling them to inspire visitors to their site in many ways. One issue, in my mind at least, is describing what "interpretation" actually is. You might guess that I feel the official definition quoted above to be a bit on the dry side. As part of our training, we study experts in this field. Experts have been concerned about parks and guides relating to their visitors since as early as the 1880's. One definition I like says, "Interpretation is an educational activity that aims to reveal meanings about our cultural and natural resources. Interpretation enhances our understanding, appreciation, and therefore, protection of historic sites and natural wonders."
Dick and I use our passion for nature at Bernheim Forest and the Falls of the Ohio, for example, to excite people about those places and nature in general, although interpreters do the same thing about history. Most people just aren't sufficiently exposed to nature or history to generate any real interest on their own. And if they aren't interested, they won't care. If they don't care, those places will be lost. One of the big concerns among naturalists now is getting children unplugged from their electrical devices and out in nature. Their parents don't go there, and the children are often afraid of the natural world, if they consider it at all. If we can light a spark in one child at a program, it's been a good day. You never know where that spark will lead in the life of a child.
Yesterday we attended various sessions to reinforce our training and share ideas with other interpreters, most of whom do this for a living. Today we rode the ferry to Cumberland Island National Seashore, a relatively new addition to the National Parks Service. We all know there is more to a park than running good programs. Budgets and politics are involved too, affecting the quality and quantity of programs that can be made available. We walked, had a great program from the local ranger, and tried to keep warm during the windy day. It's nice to be with other people who stop to guess what animal left a track or scat in the sand. And I have two new birds to add to my life list -- the Bonaparte Gull (flying above) and some Horned Grebes. By the second full day of the conference, I'm beginning to remember people, and where they work. Several have been interested in raptor rehabilitation too, so we exchanged some terrific bird stories. Tomorrow is a half day session, then everyone heads home, refreshed, revitalized and renewed. But now I have to remove the shells from the bathroom sink before I can brush my teeth. There are hazards to being a naturalist!

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Turtle Rehab

As a dedicated raptor rehab volunteer, I was excited to visit the Georgia Sea Turtle Center today. Their visitor center explores the lives of sea turtles, and the dangers they face. Only one raptor in four will survive to its first birthday. But only one in 4,000 sea turtle hatchlings will survive to adulthood. Loggerheads, for example, don't reach sexual maturity until they are 30 years old. A large window and remote camera let visitors actually observe the medical treatments for some turtles, and a volunteer explains what's going on. We watched the vet techs work with an injured pelican. And I think a Turkey Vulture can bite!
Then it was time to feed the rehab turtles, and we went to the rehab tank building. I never thought about the ways sea turtles can be injured, other then fish hooks and boat propellers. Griffin, a loggerhead turtle, is a "floater" and seems to have suffered a stroke. He can't remember how to dive down, and since sea turtles find their food on the ocean bottom, this is a real problem. As part of the physical therapy process they velcro weights to his shell, to encourage him to dive. Diving requires expelling air from the lungs, and he doesn't remember how to do this. He now can put both front flippers before his face, so he's making progress. When it's time to feed, the handlers put his food in giant tweezers, and drag it along the bottom of the tank. He knows he has to go down to eat and works hard at it. His tank is pretty small, and they hope to get him improved so he can be transferred to a larger facility, for further treatment and release.
Other turtles are admitted with a condition called "cold water stunning." (I think that's what they called it.) Sea turtles are reptiles, and cold blooded. If they are in the north feeding, at Cape Cod for example, and the water temperature drops before they can leave the area, their system starts to shut down. They have to be slowly returned to the proper water temperature. We have checked into the Jekyll Island Club Hotel now, and the NAI conference sessions will begin in the morning. This hotel was built by millionaires in the late 1800's, and is full of old time ambiance. I almost expect to see Christopher Reeve in a 1910 suit from Somewhere in Time. At the least, I think someone will ask me to leave because I am dressed in jeans and boots, instead of a proper long gown and bustle! But the sunset was wonderful, and the stars are shining. I can't remember the last time I saw so many stars at once.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Living on the Edge

The day began innocently enough. It's raining again, but that's not enough to stop two intrepid naturalists and birders like Dick and Kathy. We knew it would rain, and brought appropriate rain gear, having been almost drowned on previous birding expeditions. My raincoat is even big enough to protect a camera and binoculars from the downpour and my boots are waterproof. Semper Paratus! Always Prepared- that's our motto. Expecting a nature walk at Clam Creek, we head for the north end of the island. A phone call to the Nature Center verifies our suspicion that the walks are not offered in February after all. So what? Rain and no guide aren't enough to slow us down. The fishing pier is host to a variety of gulls perched on the roof and fence rails. Look at those with the black heads! Once again, our winter limitations may mislead us, so we examine the field guide closely. Laughing Gulls have black heads, but not in the winter, and we can't see the feet on this one. Bonaparte Gulls also have black heads, and the map shows them wintering in this area. That would be a life bird too! Let's keep looking though.
I think some of them may be molting into summer plummage. The legs on these birds are black - which Laughing Gulls have. Can they get breeding plummage this early in the year? But look at the shape of the black cap above. It doesn't come down the back of the head as much as a Laughing Gull. But the bill on the Bonapart is more pointy, right? I keep going back and forth. Any gull experts out there? What do you think? Is this a mixture of both birds standing together on the roof?
Gulls perch companionably along the fence railing at the pier, not caring what species they stand next to. As we walk slowly along, you could almost hear them say, "Move over there, these people keep coming closer, but they are slow, so we don't actually have to fly away yet. Just keep moving down, and maybe they will go away." From the bridge overlooking a creek, we scan the marshes. A small brown bird flies in then paces the mudflats, bobbing its tail. That's a familiar behavior- a Spotted Sandpiper! Of course, in February, they don't have spots, so the behavior is essential.
A Black Crowned Night Heron competes in the "How Long Can You Stand Without Moving" contest. The other entrants must be hidden in the rushes. Surely Rails and Bitterns live in these tall reeds too, but they are better at disguising themselves.
(Dramatic music begins.) A path leads into the forest as spanish moss drapes off every branch- live oak, holly, palmetto. Anything not moving is covered in long beards of spanish moss and lichens that look like they might glow in the dark.
The path isn't marked, but I remember seeing a trail on the map that loops around. We'll follow it for a while, and it will lead us back to the parking lot. At 10:30, it begins to rain in earnest, increasing from a gentle pitter-pat to a steady drumming. The drops slide to the end of long pine needles, hanging for a while until large enough to fall to the ground. Drat- my camera battery is dead. Replace it with the spare, and then it too flashes red. Oh well, it's raining too hard for pictures anyway by now. My raincoat is doing a good job, but Dick starts to look pretty bedraggled. His hands are cold, and eventually, he puts his glasses in a pocket since he can't see through them anyway.
At last, a break in the trees goes towards the beach again, where we see the first Ruddy Turnstones of our visit! Unfortunately, our way to the beach is barred by a creek winding its way out of the marshes and into the ocean. Not to worry, the trail goes on, and this should begin the loop back to the beginning. Or does it?? The trail narrows in spots, and we watch the ground for tracks of deer and wild boar. I can deal with deer, but hope we don't find any boar. Push through the palmettos when they block the way, but keep going. If we turn around now, we'll find we were almost back anyway. Vines grab at our boots, tripping us as we try to climb over. We begin to wonder if we are really lost after all. How would we get help? Even if we called someone on the cell phone, we don't know where to tell them to look for us.
We have been walking in the rain for over an hour now. Is that a clear area around the next bend? Maybe it's the parking lot. Well, it's a clear area, but one that leads to the beach. On Driftwood Beach at last! We can just walk around on the sand to get back to the car. Markers line the dunes periodically, starting with Number 4, warning us not to walk on the dunes. Marker 3 then Marker 2 are left behind as we continue, and finally Marker 1, but no fishing pier. At last, we turn one more corner, and view the pier. Hooray! Aren't you glad we aren't pioneers who have to do this all the time? Oh no--I know where we are! It's the spot where we saw the Turnstones, and couldn't get over the creek. We still have to cross the creek to get back to the pier. Walk upstream a bit and look for a shallow spot. None of them look very shallow, so we just take a deep breath and wade into water up to our knees to reach the other side. We must have walked entirely around the marsh that feeds this creek. Now my boots and socks go squish with each step. Plodding steadily along, we finally reach the safety of our car and return to the hotel for a hot shower, dry clothes and warm soup in the restaurant. "What shall we do the rest of the afternoon?" Dick asks. "Stay right here where it's dry and warm!" I reply!

Sunday, February 06, 2011

What Did You Learn Today?

Most people go on vacation to have fun, right? As a nature nut, I also try to learn about birds, rocks, etc. when we go on vacation. For example, lots and lots of little birds were flitting between the trees, either in bad light, or just setting speed records from tree to tree. Many were Yellow-rumped Warblers, but some were little brown birds with stripes near their wings. Eventually, one of them held still long enough for us to see the yellow spots. This is a juvenile Yellow-rump! One mystery solved!
Dick and I enjoy our Gentle Yoga classes at the YMCA, and I have improved over time. I still have terrible balance though, and absolutely cannot balance on one leg. I have to do a pose called Kickstand, instead of Tree. This Willet is doing a perfect tree pose, and I'm jealous.
This Ring Billed Gull seems to be wearing a rubber band around his bill, as though someone wants him to keep a secret. But that look in his eye.... must be the super spy among gulls!
Juvenile gulls go through several molts before adulthood, and really really good birders can tell how old the juvie is just by the feather patterns. Not me, sorry. However, I now know that juvenile Herring Gulls have pink legs with brown feathers on tail and secondary flights.
Although the beach is not a place to hurry, these birds all seem to be in a rush this afternoon. It's a great opportunity to compare the sizes of the largest Herring Gull, medium size Ring Billed Gull, and small Dunlin, all in a hurry to get somewhere or other.
Remember, I volunteer with Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky, Inc., and every shift, we gather the pellets coughed up by every bird. Pellets, of course, contain the bones, fur and other non-digestible parts of their rodent dinner. Today, I started seeing these blobs of shells up and down the beach, something I've never seen before, despite many beach walks. As an experienced raptor worker, I immediately recognized these blobs as pellets! When gulls eat small animals, they swallow them shells and all, but later cough up crushed pieces of shell which can't be digested, like the raptors. The tide washes them away, so I haven't seen them before. It just makes sense!
Grackles are funny birds -- shiny irridescent black, bright yellow eyes, and really loud! A flock lives here at the hotel, and today we found one snacking on a bananna peel. Well, I guess that's healthier than the potato chips I usually picture them eating.
A good vigorous shake after your bath works well when you don't have a towl to dry off with!
Since Dick and I volunteer with nature preserves, we usually don't have time to go on vacation during the summer. Plus, we try to go someplace warm when it's cold in Louisville, but lately we have trouble finding warm places in January and Febuary at all! Anyway, we are used to seeing shore birds in their winter plummage, and wouldn't recognize them in breeding colors. Sanderlings are little gray birds, running down to the sea and back. But we've been seeing little brown birds near the water's edge instead. Have the Sanderlings started into their breeding plummage this early? No, we've now determined that these are Dunlins. Mystery two solved.
Have you ever seen gulls dancing in the shallow tidal pools? It looks like a really fast Mexican Hat Dance, moving their feet up and down. However, this stirs up the mud and little animals which the gull then eats. Watch this movie to the end to see the Gull Dance.
Superbowl? Are you watching it or not? It's halftime, and the group called Black-eyed Peas is on. Oh My! I guess they won't have any wardrobe malfunctions unless the batteries die on the lights for their suits, and those extras doing aerobics. Maybe this is actually a group from the 23rd Century, time traveling back to appear in the Super Bowl!

Saturday, February 05, 2011

A Gray Day

How many words do you know for gray? How about grau, gris, grigio, grijs, cenza? (I confess, I had to look them up myself) After driving 10 hours in the rain yesterday, we arrived at Jekyll Island, Georgia, this morning just as the rain stopped and the fog finally lifted. Gray is still the color du jour though. During our first beach walk, the sand, sea and sky all melted together, making it hard to see where each ended and the next began. Is this Zen, when all things are one?
Driftwood Beach is a bit of a misnomer, in my opinion. I would call it Beach Invasion, as the sand encroaches on the trees, killing them and making homes for all manner of tiny shelled animals. Now the beach is gray and black! I don't really need any colors in my camera sensors today. Shooting in grayscale would have worked just fine.
Wind and water combined to push over the trees, exposing root structures in fascinating patterns silhouetted against the gray clouds.
Then we noticed lines of black on the water. Floating debris? No, it looks like huge groups of ducks!
Scaup! Scaup! Scaup! Greater and Lesser, I think. Anything else??? When I looked closely and magnified the photos I saw one Redhead and one Wigeon (I think), and one Cormorant flew over. We were able to confirm all these scaup for several people walking the beach, also wondering what in the world was floating on the water. My camera isn't really broken. See, it can take pictures of red berries, if we find any.
And we found a Bluebird at the beach, although why he wanted to come to such a barren spot is beyond me. The constantly blowing wind has shaped these trees and bushes outside our hotel. I don't think the hotel staff had a hand in it, at least. Do they make hedge trimmers this big?
Large Grackles greeted us as we checked in and walked the beach by our hotel. I'm not sure what this female was so upset about, but she does not appear to be a happy camper, does she? We are spending a few days on our own playing tourist, then will attend the National Association of Interpreters Region 3 conference later in the week. When I tell people I am a Certified Interpretive Guide, they often ask how many languages I speak. Well, it's not that sort of interpretation. More to come....