Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Crazy as a Coot

You've heard the phrases. "Crazy as a coot," or "You old coot." Until I started birding, I thought a "coot" was simply a derogatory word for someone who was slightly batty. Then I learned that there actually is something named a coot, and it's a bird!

The American Coot is a black/gray chunky bird with a pointy white beak, built like a chicken, but related to rails. Unlike ducks, with whom they often swim, they don't have webbed feet, but only lobed toes. The broad lobes fold back each time the bird lifts its foot, so it doesn’t impede walking on dry land, though it supports the bird’s weight on mucky ground.

When the heavy bodied bird tries to fly, however, it has to work pretty hard. It runs as fast as it can, flapping furiously, just in front of your boat. Then in a short distance, they decide they are safe enough, drop back down to the lake's surface again, and return to calmly browsing the water plants.

I enjoy watching the Coots at sunset, when they paddle across the lake leaving long wakes behind. What a peaceful way to end the day!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

How Many Pelicans Can Sit On A Log?

Most people assume that all Pelicans live near the ocean, and, in fact, Brown Pelicans do. But the American Pelican is white, breeds on lakes throughout the northern Great Plains and mountain West, and is one of the largest birds in North America. It winters along the coasts, but breeds only inland. By October, they flock up to descend the Mississippi flyway towards the Gulf Coast to spend the winter. Reel Foot Lake is an attractive stop over point to rest and feed. All those old cypress stumps make perfect perches. And the occasional underwater log can provide perching spots for many Pelicans at a time.

Pelicans are enormous birds, with a wingspan nearing 9.5 feet, and weighing up to 20 pounds. While enjoying their wing display, I wondered why so many white birds have black wing tips. Think about it...American Pelicans, Snow Geese, Wood Storks, White Ibis, many different gulls and terns. Google to the rescue again. Apparently the melanin in black feathers makes them stronger than white feathers without melanin. It's important to have strong flight feathers when you travel as far as these birds do in migration every year.

They are graceful fliers, but getting that large body up into the air takes a lot of effort, much of it quite comical! Those big feet come in handy for a running start!


Their feeding behavior is different than expected too. They don't dive down into the water after fish, but swim on the surface, herding their prey into a small area to be scooped up by those long bills. Several pelicans may fish cooperatively, moving into a circle to concentrate fish, and then dipping their heads under simultaneously to catch fish. It looks like a Pelican ballet!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Reel Foot Lake - a Drowned Forest

Reel Foot Lake, along the Mississippi River in Western Tennessee,  is an unusual body of water. It's classified as a "natural" lake, since it wasn't created by a man-made damming of some river. Instead, it formed when the great earthquake of 1811-1812 dropped the bottom of old river bed, and the river flowed upstream to fill the lower area.
Look at the curved shapes in the lake (at the red A). They indicate old oxbow bends in the river. To the left is the big oxbow bend currently taken by the river at the point where Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri join. In fact, one part of Kentucky can only be reached by going into Missouri these days. It used to be joined to the rest of the state, but the river moved since the maps were drawn.

In 1811, these river beds were swampy areas filled with bald cypress forests. The bald cypress is a very unusual tree. It's a conifer, which usually means an evergreen tree, but these trees drop their needles each fall to become "bald" in fact!

They grow huge "buttressed" supports to keep them steady in the boggy areas they favor. Cypress knees grow up in the water around the base of the tree. Much speculation says they help the tree obtain air when the roots are under water. Another theory is that they help support the weight of the tree in soggy soil. Notice that you don't see the knees when cypress are planted in your neighbor's yard. The lake is normally only about 5 feet deep, but drought hit Western Tennessee this summer, just like every place else, and currently the lake is only about 3 feet deep. The water levels are clearly visible on the lake shore knees.

When you look across the lake, you see small cypress trees growing in the middle of the water, beside mystery objects. I asked David Haggard, our guide, "Are they rocks? Are they birds?" No they are the stumps of cypress trees that lived here 200 years ago when the lake was formed after the earthquake, and so are the surviving stunted trees. (Thump!) You see, bald cypress trees don't rot when covered by water. (Bump!) The dead logs only rot when exposed to the air, so as long as the lake stays at its normal 5 foot depth, the 200+ year old stumps are covered in water, and safe from further decay. (Rrrrrrr! Tilt! Splash!) Some of the trees themselves are still alive after 200 years, but their growth has been stunted.

What are the sound effects, you ask. That's what it sounds like to take a boat into the lake when it's this low. Even though David skillfully steers around most of the stumps, some are still hidden below the water's surface, and we find them only by running into or over them. In fact, he has a special "four-wheel drive" boat, which seems to be a combination flat-bottomed John boat, with a Jeep-like 2 blade motor, enabling it to climb up and over any stumps and logs in the way. He drives slowly when he knows the water is low, and faster when going through the old river channels which have fewer stumps. I'd love to see those idio__, excuse me, those boatmen, from Kentucky Lake try to come here with their big outboards, or some junior idio_ with jet skis! They would ruin their boat and dump themselves into the water in about 3 minutes!

The really shallow parts of the lake are home to American lotus and water lilies, growing at a depth of only 3-4 inches! The keel on his motor keeps the blades from becoming entangled in the plants, or getting stuck in the mud, although a few times he had to tilt the blades at an extra shallow angle to keep from becoming stuck.

In the summer, the lotus grow one stalk with a huge leaf, and another stalk for the flower/seed pod.

By now, all we have are brown dry leaves, and brown flower pods that look like shower heads. The acorn-like seeds make a wonderful rattle when one of the pods breaks off, landing in the bottom of the boat. The mini-forest of dried leaves and pods provide excellent hiding places for the water fowl coming here for the winter. You don't see the coots and ducks until they actually take off en masse with a loud whirl of wings. Duck season will start in a few weeks, but I'm betting on the ducks. They can only be shot if they leave the water. David says there is a six duck limit per hunter, and the limit is allocated among the different species depending on how rare they are. Hunters have to learn to recognize them on the wing flying at full speed, something I certainly can't do.

Dawn is a wonderful time to enjoy the lake, with pink clouds and incredible reflections in the water. What a terrific way to start the day. We thanked David for taking time off work for our tour, and he said he preferred being on the lake to staying in the office all day! You can always do paperwork when it rains!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Bald Eagles at Reel Foot Lake

Everyone recognizes our national symbol, the Bald Eagle, right? Most people know that they were on the endangered species list for many years. Before European settlers arrived in North American, an estimated  half-million Bald Eagles may have lived along every large river and concentration of lakes within North America, nesting in forty-five of the lower forty-eight states. Their numbers began to drop as they had to compete with people for territory and food through the 1800's. The pesticide DDT killed huge numbers of Eagles and other birds by making their eggs too thin to survive incubation.

Bald eagles were officially declared an endangered species in 1967 in all areas of the United States south of the 40th parallel, under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973. On July 4, 1976, the US Fish and Wildlife Service officially listed the bald eagle as a national endangered species. By June 2007, they were officially removed from that list, having been re-introduced into their old territories by hacking, or releasing young birds, in appropriate areas. When the young birds reach the age of reproduction, they return to the area where they fledged to raise their own young.  The number of nesting pairs in the lower 48 United States increased 10-fold, from less than 450 in the early 1960s, to more than 4,500 adult bald eagle nesting pairs in the 1990s. In the Southeast, for example, there were about 980 breeding pairs in 1993, up from about 400 in 1981. The largest concentrations were in the states of Florida and Louisiana. Today, there are an estimated 9,789 nesting pairs of bald eagles. In Kentucky, we have an estimated population of 100 breeding pairs, including two nesting sites in Jefferson County.

No matter how many times you see a Bald Eagle in a raptor program, there is no thrill to match seeing them in the wild, doing what they were meant to do. At Reel Foot Lake in Tennessee yesterday, we must have seen at least 20 eagles, and it isn't even migration season yet. The numbers increase dramatically when they come down the Mississippi River to the warmer waters of Western Tennessee and Kentucky. At one point, we saw six of them in the air at once, flying around each other, touching talons, and generally looking pretty darn happy. It made us happy too! We were able to approach the adult bird at the top of the post within about 25 yards, and he just sat and posed in the sun for a long time before flying off. Someone who really knows his stuff can age a juvenile or sub-adult eagle by the patterns of white in its feathers, which change every year until maturity at 5 years of age. This bird with the dirty head is probably a 4 year old, and will grow completely white head and tail feathers next year.

Their beaks are dark as well as their feathers as youngsters, and as they mature, you can see the beaks and legs changing color too.

They love the open snags at the top of an old bald cypress tree for an "eagle's eye" view of the lake. Reel Foot State Park offers eagle viewing weekends in January. Reel Foot Lake is home to one of the largest wintering populations of eagles in the country. During the peak season (Jan.-Feb.) there can be as many as 200 eagles wintering on Reel Foot. The three Kentucky State Parks near Land Between the Lakes offer eagle weekend tours as well.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife personnel will often climb up into eagle nests (a dangerous move) to band the young eaglets before they fledge. Kentucky's Dept of Fish and Wildlife has attached satellite transmitters to several bald eagles to track their movements. The eagles wear a 70g solar-powered GPS-PTT satellite transmitter, attached externally, like a backpack with a Teflon harness. Solar panels recharge the transmitter's battery and we hope to receive three-five years of tracking data from each of these birds. The transmitter will not affect the eagle’s ability to fly, forage, or breed. Each transmitter, or tracking device, will allow KDFWR to follow the bald eagle’s movements and will provide information on the dispersal, home range, migration, roosting and foraging patterns, as well as, the survival of each eagle. In examining the photos I took, I saw that one of our birds had a radio transmitter on his back. (click to enlarge the photo for a closer view). Dave Haggard, long time eagle expert and our guide yesterday, said he would see if he could track this down.


Chief Paduke is the adult eagle (no, this photo isn't the Chief, but a bird I saw yesterday) currently being tracked in Kentucky, but the maps indicate that he's staying pretty much around the Paducah area. "Chief Paduke" was captured using a rocket-net at Ballard Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in western Kentucky on April 30, 2012. Chief is an adult male (at least 5 years old) and is known to nest on Ballard WMA. But Chief was already banded when captured! He had been rehabilitated in 2010 after he was illegally shot, which injured his wing. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) captured Chief after a landowner reported seeing an injured eagle and took him to Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky. After recovering from surgery, Chief was released in his nesting territory in late summer 2010.  WOW! I was volunteering at Raptor Rehab that summer, but didn't realize one of our birds was being tracked! Too cool!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Colorfest at Bernheim

Colorfest is one of the biggest annual events at Bernheim Forest and Arboretum every year. Saturday was chill and gray, but that didn't stop the crowds who came for the party and to see the raptors from Raptor Rehabilitation of KY. Sunday dawned bright and clear, and despite the shorter hours, the crowds seemed even bigger than before. When I entered the gates today, the road simply crawled with lines of  cars of people trying to find a parking space. I pulled into the nearby Garden Pavilion, figuring that I could walk the distance faster than creeping along the road in my car! And I had a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the colors behind the Big Meadow. The sun also brought out an absolute invasion of ladybugs, flying into your mouth and down your shirt all afternoon.

As indicated by the name "Arboretum," Bernheim preserves the native tree species, but also brings in others requiring a name tag to identify. Near the education building, several tupelo, or black gum trees, have been planted. They sport some of the brightest red leaves and small berries on the property. And they make a wonderful backdrop for photographing raptors.

By late October, most of the fall flowers are past their peak, but a large bed of toad lilies bloomed along the reflecting pool at the education building. I understand they come in different colors, but I like these purple spotted ones the best.

Most parents want to have new photos of their children taken regularly for perfect pictures to send the family, dressing them in their best, and fussing with that one piece of hair that wants to stick up the wrong way. We are the same way with our birds at Raptor Rehab, so Saturday was a great chance to get colorful yet natural looking backgrounds for bird photos. Gracie Mae kept putting her ear tufts down flat, and we did everything but take a comb to her head to get them to stand up.

We always tell the children that the Screech Owl colors help them blend into the background of the trees where they perch. If you blink, you might miss red-morph Tidwell in these leaves.

AJ, one of our Barn Owls, is a very curious fellow, who just wanted to go back to his perch for a nap in the shade as the day went on and on and on...

It will only take one more round of rain and wind to blow these fall leaves to the ground, and then we must spend more time chopping them with the mower or raking them up altogether. I'm lucky, and my husband enjoys this sort of work. When they are gone, though, I can still come back and remember the fresh crisp odor of freshly fallen leaves and the orange so bright you need sunglasses to look at them.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Deep Purple Fall

Normally, when I think of fall and the changing leaves, I picture bright reds, yellows and oranges, complemented by bronze and gold. Your typical New England landscape in October, right? For some reason, this year my eye has been drawn to purple leaves, such as this sweet gum tree, which I don't really recall seeing before.
Even the dogwoods look more purple than red this season. Am I getting old and my vision changing? Well, yes, that's true, but I don't think color vision changes with age. Perhaps I'm just expanding my horizons. Yes, that's a much better sounding explanation.
The National Arboretum website has a page on the Science of Color in Autumn, explaining why leaves turn color. Hmm, I thought it might end up being related to chemistry somehow. According to the Arboretum folks, it's the longer nights that makes leaves start to change color, no matter what the temperature is. Chlorophyll makes the leaves green during summer when they are manufacturing sugars, but when the nights are longer, chlorophyll breaks down allowing other chemicals to show their colors. Chlorophyll normally masks the yellow pigments known as xanthophylls and the orange pigments called carotenoids — both then become visible when the green chlorophyll is gone. These colors are present in the leaf throughout the growing season. Red and purple pigments come from anthocyanins. In the fall anthocyanins are manufactured from the sugars that are trapped in the leaf. In most plants anthocyanins are typically not present during the growing season. 

Grapes are supposed to be purple, but these tiny wild grapes were so high in the tree I couldn't pick any for a closer look. But the birds certainly enjoyed them.

Sometimes, plants are supposed to be purple anyway, such as these beautiful asters. Whatever your favorite color may be, look around during the fall, and you will probably find it. Enjoy the colors now before they all disappear for the drab grays of winter.