Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Lifer Birding

Red Crossbill - Female on top, male bottom right
You are probably aware of the large numbers of finches in places they normally aren't seen this fall/winter, right? I've heard it's because Canadian fir trees don't have enough cones this year. The KY Bird List reported Red Crossbills at the cemetery in Lexington yesterday, and this morning at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville. We planned to go an a Beckham Bird Club trip to Cave Hill anyway, so it was a bonus to have such a rare target bird.

Red Crossbill Male
I'll be honest. If I'd gone by myself to find this bird, it would have been a complete failure. I might have seen this bird perched at the very top of a hemlock tree, and wondered what it was through my binoculars, but I never would have known for sure. And they were far enough away that the photos don't give much detail. Thanks again to all our birder buddies with big Swarovski spotting scopes, I got some good long looks at these unusual birds. I even watched the brick colored male grab some hemlock cones, pry them apart with his crossed bill, and pull out the seeds to eat. We did not see a White Crossbill, just the Red. "Just, the Red..." I shook my head in wonder as the words left my mouth!

Cave Hill National Cemetery
I've gone to Cave Hill Cemetery off and on for years, but I did not realize before that it is also a National Cemetery, with soldiers from the Civil War through Vietnam buried there. The rows of small white headstones looks much like Arlington Cemetery. The stones with a rounded tops are Union soldiers, while the ones with pointed tops identify the graves of Confederate soldiers. During the Civil War, there were so many dead that the bodies were carried to the cemetery in trains of wagons every day. Beginning with 0.65 donated acres, today, the national cemetery encompasses 4.1 acres within the nearly 300-acre Cave Hill Cemetery.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
We also had some good views of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker coming to check out one of his favorite trees. These birds aren't really rare, I suppose, but I don't see them as often as the other woodpeckers, so this was exciting to me, especially since he was close enough for a good shot. A new person who is a professional photographer joined our group this morning . She carried her camera (with a 3 foot long lens) on a monopod. To take a photo of a bird up in a tree, such as the Crossbill, she had to kneel down on the pavement (which we fortunately had this morning). Sorry, I don't care how good the photos would be, I don't want to carry around that much equipment. I do covet another spotting scope with one of the bent viewers, though I can't really justify spending that much money.

Northern Harrier
The KY Bird List also reported another sighting of the Short Eared Owls I went to look for a few weeks ago, in the same place as before. Well, it's warmer since the sun came out, so why not? I chatted for a while with the owner of the land when he drove down the road. He likes the hawks that eat mice, but he's not fond of the ones that go for bunnies and birds. He didn't mind at all that birders were coming to look for these owls.

Short Eared Owl
As the sun sank behind the horizon, I finally saw some birds. No, that one has a long tail, it's a Harrier. Why are they coming out at dusk, when I didn't see them for the whole hour I waited? Oh, sure. That facial disc means they hunt with sound, just like the owls do. But the long tail is the giveaway. Look there! This bird has rounded wings, a rounded head and shorter tail. This must be the Short Eared Owl!  Hooray! Now I just have to find one sitting on a fencepost sometime so I can get a photo of its beautiful face!

The hunt continues, but I can put notches in my binoculars for two more life birds today! Just imagine the hunting success the owls will have tonight in the light of the full moon.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Backyard Bird Drama

After unsuccessfully searching for the rare Snowy Owl seen at the Louisville Airport the night before, I came home Saturday for some lunch. Walking into the kitchen, I gasped to see a Cooper's Hawk sitting on top of a bird feeder in the back yard!

Coopers nested in our neighbor's tree for three years, so I am not surprised to find young hawks in my yard, but usually they are perched in a tree looking for lunch, or trying to avoid mobbing groups of smaller birds. I wonder if she is one of our fledglings all grown up.

This beautiful adult brazenly sat in the middle of all the feeders looking around. Of course, the yard was silent. The backyard birds wisely crouched in the dry leaves, hiding from this known predator and keeping absolutely quiet. The hawk scanned the yard, concentrating particularly on the drying flowers of our butterfly garden. Would this be my lifetime chance to photograph a hawk actually catching prey? She appeared to be searching for ground rodents, not the birds we normally would expect her to hunt for.

After a few minutes, some of the braver birds came out of hiding. Could they tell the hawk wasn't interested in their kind today? I noticed that the little nutchatches and chickadees would grab one sunflower seed while the hawk was turned the other way, then dash back into the leaves again. Smart birds!

The hawk thought she saw something under the flowers and hopped to the ground, peering between the dry stems for a mouse or chipmunk, and completely ignoring the birds.

Aha! This is our chance! and my pair of Carolina Wrens started eating sunflower seeds, their pert little tails sticking straight up as usual.

At least four First of Season Red Breasted Nuthatches came to dine as well.  I usually don't see them in my backyard most years. Ron Pittaway is forecasting that a fair number of species--especially Red and White-winged Crossbills, redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks, and Evening Grosbeaks--are likely to be on the move this year due to widespread crop failure of fruiting and cone-bearing trees in Canada. Three irruptive non-finch passerines are also discussed in his report.

Lots of Kentucky birders (not me yet) are finding large numbers of Pine Siskins in their yards already. Snowy Owls are showing up in mid-November, and as far south as Louisville, KY - which is quite unusual. Something is going on with the regular winter food supply of these birds, causing them to leave their home territories. After last year's unusually mild winter, I wonder what's going to happen this year. I try not to think about doom and gloom rumors, i.e. the Mayan prediction, but the nature of a disaster is to come without warning. We are planning to go to Florida in February, which normally portends a big snow for the north while we are gone. Sorry guys, it just happens that way.

The Cooper's Hawk landed for a minute on a decorative log in the garden, then headed into the brush. I'm sure she's still around somewhere, just prudently keeping out of sight. She's not worried about the rest of the winter, just what she will eat today.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Search for the Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl Photo by Eddie Huber
Last night around 7 p.m., my cell phone rang. "Kathy, you have to get out here right away!" Morgan exclaimed. "We have a SNOWY OWL out by I-65 near the airport!" I had been watching Hercule Poirot reruns on Netflix, and hadn't checked my emails lately, but a Snowy Owl was sighted in Louisville on Nov 15.  There are several strange things about this sighting. One, Snowy Owls very rarely get as far south as Louisville. Even in a bad winter, they come to Ohio and Indiana, but not Kentucky. AND mid-November is extremely early for such a bird to be sighted. We've heard about the finch sightings, but I was blown away by this. Of course, we put our shoes on and hurried to the car, but only a mile away from home my friend called again and the bird had flown off. This photo was taken by Eddie Huber, another birding friend. Apparently it was found at the foot of an exit ramp off the interstate!

So I got in my car this morning and headed to the area of the sighting. Snowy Owls are diurnal and could be hunting at the airport again.  It should be easy to spot if it's there - a large white bird tends to stand out. So I scanned all the light poles, power poles, roof tops, signs and fences, but no luck. When you see something light colored you take a closer look, with your heart pounding madly. Maybe I got lucky this time, you whisper to yourself.

I never realized how many odd things are attached to the top of various poles and posts! I met up with another birding buddy, and we cruised the back side of the airport for a scenic tour of the industrial side of Louisville, checking in with other birders via cell phone. I would have been completely lost, but Del seemed to know where he was going. Of course, we saw plenty of plastic-bag birds. I suppose this metal feather duster thing is some kind of anti-bird device.

Large Great Brown-Tailed UPS birds perched at their regular feeding area at the airport. I wondered what was going through the mind of that young owl. (I know, this is anthropomorphising, but hey...) Coming so far from the familiar barrens of the Arctic tundra, it must have felt like it entered the Twilight Zone. There were areas of short bare grass, kind of familiar looking, surrounded by large paved areas completely devoid of life. To the north of the airport is the Kentucky State Fairgrounds, with more grassy areas and parking lots. To the south of the airport is the largest landfill in the county, with few trees but plenty of rats to eat, making it attractive to raptors. Therefore, this strip has attracted other northern visitors over the years, including a Rough-Legged Hawk one winter. Last year, a Ferruginous Hawk stayed at the Cincinnati airport for several weeks.

As we cruised through the industrial buildings and warehouses, I did spot this young Red Tailed Hawk, trying to ignore a vicious attack from a Mockingbird. The hawk finally gave up and flew off. I'm keeping my cell phone nearby and charged up, hoping that someone will find this bird again, and I can get to see it. Wow! A real, live Snowy Owl here in Louisville! I just hope we don't have to bring it in for rehab sometime.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Bird Quest

Since the weather report said this would be a nice weekend, followed by cold and rain, we decided to join our friends from the Kentucky Society for Natural History on a trip to Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge. This NWR is only an hour or so north of Louisville, and an easy drive. Traditionally, we would go there in the fall and winter looking for water fowl of all sorts on the many lakes. However, they now have a new property manager, who has a different plan for the refuge, and most of the lakes we saw had more plant growth than water in them. We saw about a dozen Canada Geese, and only one male Wood Duck on one of the larger lakes, but none on any of the others.

Muscatatuck is the first place I ever saw a Red Headed Woodpecker, and I'm glad they are still around, along with the Yellow-rumped Warblers. But even the Bluebirds seem to have moved elsewhere.

I would have to say that the Refuge is now being managed for Turkey Vultures, since we saw more of them than anything other kind of bird. I'm sad to say that I am removing this NWR from my list of favorite birding spots in this area.

I subscribe to the Kentucky Birdlist, and read the postings, even though I'll probably never post anything myself, just to see what other birders are finding. This weekend, a couple reported seeing a Short-eared Owl and some Harriers in nearby Western Kentucky. It's only an hour and a half drive, I thought. I could make that and would sure love to get a photo of a Short-eared Owl!  They even provided an address (in the middle of farm country) for my GPS. I daydreamed about the wonderful closeup I'd get of that owl sitting on a fencepost all the way there.

I got there shortly before sunset, and found Harriers swooping over a field on the next ridge. Golly, they sure fly quickly from one end of the field to the other side! Then as I peered through my binoculars, I spotted FOUR of them in the air at once - an adult male, a female, and probably 2 juveniles -- the entire family! What about the owl? I did see a different bird, in a closer part of the field, but it flew so quickly away from me that I didn't get a close look. I'm going to say it was the owl.

Harriers are hawks, but they fly with their wings tipped in a dihedral, like Turkey Vultures. They have a facial disc like an owl, and use their hearing to help find prey. When they turn, you can see a large white rump. I never see them where other hawks are found, since they seem to require large open fields in which to hunt and won't come near the city. But they are definitely exciting birds to watch!

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Eagle News!

When we went to Reel Foot Lake last week, we just enjoyed the beautiful fall weather and took photos of anything I could focus on. As often happens, I discovered something special while working with the photos on my computer that evening. One of the Bald Eagles had a radio transmitter on! I
sent the photo to David Haggard with TN State Parks, who sent it to Scott Somershoe, the TN State Ornithologist, who sent it to KY's State Avian Biologist, Kate Heyden. Here's what Kate says:
 "Remember “Missy”? The young rehabilitated bald eagle we deployed a transmitter on in August of 2011 which disappeared in October of 2011? Recall we had gone to west Tennessee to search for her after she stopped transmitting, but found no signs of her and wondered if her transmitter stopped working. Well, a young bald eagle was photographed at REEL FOOT Lake last week wearing a transmitter. The bird’s age and style of transmitter are correct and I can’t find any other young eagles that are currently being tracked that have been in that area recently. Thus, there’s a high probability that this bird is “Missy.” Too bad she is wearing a non-working transmitter, but I’m glad to see she’s OK. Our last locations from Missy were in this same area."

 Missy was rehabbed at RROKI in August 2011. Eileen Wicker of Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky says that of the three birds with transmitters, two of them were rehabbed at RROKI!

Meanwhile, Turner has flown to Alabama- that’s the furthest south he or any of our eagles have been. Chief Paduke continues to stick around his territory at Ballard.  See more about the transmitter project at:

When we rehab and release any bird, it's always with a prayer, since we have no way of knowing whether it will survive and do well or not, especially the young birds. It's wonderful to be able to learn something about one of our "alumni." Especially when I found it!!