Saturday, May 26, 2012

Night of the Nighthawk

Pursuing flying insects at dusk and dawn, the Common Nighthawk can be seen flying its floppy flight in rural or urban areas. Its white wing patches and erratic flight make it look like a big bat with headlights. I've wanted to see this bird for years, and finally found it above La Quinta Inn at Columbia, MO, where we attended a family wedding.

Now, remember, Nighthawks are not hawks at all, but members of the nightjar family. They fly at dusk and dawn catching bugs on the wing, and especially like building with lights that attract bugs. Although they are incredibly agile, and their wings resemble a falcon's, they have a very small beak, not in the least like a raptor's. Actually, someone brought a Nighthawk to the Raptor Rehab Center recently. Well, it has hawk in its name, right?

When we returned to the hotel after a family dinner last night, we heard the distinctive peent of this bird and looked up to see its white wing bars swooping over our heads. The call was surprisingly familiar, and I must have heard them before, not realizing what they were. My sister-in-law said she always thought they were bats. (Sorry, I didn't take this photo - wish I could claim it.)

They swoop and dive so fast, it's hard to get a focus at all in the failing light, let alone a closeup. After a few minutes, they fold their wings and dive down over the edge of the roof - zoom - with a distinctive, but mostly indescribable sound. Like a Woodcock, they compress air under their wings, and their feathers make it sound like a zooming airplane! I had several people ask what I was looking at as they unloaded their luggage after a long day on the road, but alas, they weren't intrigued enough to come back out to the parking lot for the fun. You have to be careful though. Trying to follow these birds as they circle overhead can make you dizzy!

The wedding itself was delightful - tears and laughs during the ceremony, as it should be. Mostly, we enjoyed the chance to visit with family we hadn't see for years (or in my case as an in law, had never seen before at all). Three boys were born in the family within a few months of each other, and every time I turned around the Three Musketeers had their heads together solving the problems of the world, and loving every minute of it. Our 92-year-old aunt is the last of that generation in the family, and regaled all of us with stories of her siblings and all the cousins. I don't know how she remembers all those names and dates! I certainly have enough trouble knowing the birth dates of my own children! After several falling episodes, she is moving to an assisted living facility, and has her furniture all arranged on a chart of the new apartment. She looks forward to having someone else cook three meals a day for her!

To counteract all the goodies we've been eating, we found a nearby park this morning to hike for several hours before the wedding. Just down I-70 is a winery overlooking the river, so we watched the sunset over the wide, wide Missouri. I imagined Lewis and Clark traveling upstream at this point, and wondered how they would react to the big trucks crossing overhead on the bridge for the Interstate! Can you hear Rod Serling in the background?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Snake Hollow

Pulling into the parking lot at Bernheim Forest's visitor center last night, we spied a long black snake hurrying across the warm pavement towards the safety of the nearby trees. By the time we reached it, it had disappeared entirely just a foot away from where we had last seen it. Maybe he was heading for Snake Hollow.

Last month, artist Patrick Dougherty created a most unusual kind of sculpture entirely from willow sticks, and Dick was very excited to help in its construction.

Huh? Art from willow sticks? I wouldn't have thought of it either, but this is very attractive, and kid friendly. It resembles a house after a severe storm - the roof and siding are both gone, revealing all the structural beams - and it tilts quite a bit in the direction of the wind.

Most sculpture is something you just stand there and look at, but the twists and turns invite you to enter and explore. In fact, some of the doors are designed for children only, and lead to little hidey-holes where a child can giggle softly while parents call his name just on the other side of the wall.

Patrick said he didn't want to make a maze, because kids can get lost and scared when they can't find their way out. This is more like a labyrinth where each turn leads you someplace else.

A fascinating little green and white spider has taken up residence in the Hollow. I don't know what kind it is, and hope someone will recognize it. As the sun sinks down, shadows play on the walls and the floor of each corridor.

The fish pond at the Visitor Center reflected the sky and wisteria trellis above, until one of the fish jumped for an insect, setting the image in motion.

Dick spoke to the Bernheim volunteers last night about our trip to the Galapgos Islands last summer, and I went along as his personl IT techie. I don't know how the horticulture department managed to change their DNA to grow little name tags!

Of course, the Barn Swallows are nesting in the rafters under the porch at the Garden Pavilion, as they do every year, while the Purple Martins swoop around their white gourds just across the lake. Don't worry, there are plenty of insects for all the birds who eat them.

By the time we left, the guards counted our cars going out the half-closed gate, making sure no one was left inside the property after hours. Are there purple mountains at Bernheim? No, just some tall clouds from a storm system passing north of us. You can see why we love this place!

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Birding by Ear

I confess that I started blogging to show off my bird photos when I got some good ones. I am a birder who is binocular challenged. That is, I have trouble actually finding a bird to watch, and have been reluctant to lead bird walks when asked. To compensate, I listen faithfully to the CD's of birdsong, reviewing even familiar songs every spring. If I hear the bird, I want to know what I'm looking for. Frankly, the song may be all I can find most of the time. So when a bird that usually eludes me comes out of the leaves, I get really excited.

The bright orange Baltimore Oriole is one of my favorites, and a challenge for the ear birder. The Peterson Birding by Ear CD's give 4 examples of its song, which sound nothing like one another! The narrator doesn't come out and say so, but I've concluded that each Oriole sings a completely different song than all other Orioles. I've learned not to pay attention to the "tune", but listen to the "tone" - a rich whistle - of this bird. And just when you have followed it, circled around under the right tree, peering up into the leaves, it silently flies to a nearby tree and starts singing there. Sometimes I think they do it on purpose! If you whistle part of the song back, they get curious and sneak a peak. That's the time to have your camera ready!

I watched an Oriole at the Falls of the Ohio jumping around in the leaves, then followed it to the next tree where it climbed into its down hanging nest. It was silent since the females don't sing.

As I checked the nest boxes at Creasey Mahan on Friday, I heard a very unexpected song - that of the Veery. A tawny thrush of damp deciduous forests, the Veery is the least spotted of all the American spotted thrushes and one of the easiest to identify, mostly because of its song. It breeds along the Canadian border, and winters in South America, so you have to catch it in migration around here.

Due to the unique breathing capabilities of birds, the Veery sings a duet with himself! In this video, you won't see the bird (not unusual), and the sound of a squeaky swing is in fact a squeaky swing. But keep listening till the end for the eerie duet of the Veery.

Indigo Buntings were abundant at the Falls of the Ohio yesterday. Two of them defended territories next to the deck, and would gang up to chase a third male who dared come too close!

This guy just sang louder to be heard over the wind and the noise of big waves on the Ohio River below him.

Of course, not all birds have melodic songs. Cedar Waxwings travel in flocks, and love mulberries when they turn ripe. However, they sound more like high pitched buzzing insects than birds, so watch closely for movement in the branches.

Meadowlarks are usually seen before they are heard. Even if you see them, their backs are brown and well camouflaged. Only when it turns around will you see the bright yellow breast with a black ascot.

I monitor the nest boxes at Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve twice every week. In other years, the Tree Swallows claimed a box next to the Field House, but this year the House Sparrows got there first. Not to be discouraged, they moved to another box by the maintenance building, but this box was destroyed by predators. House Sparrows again, I suspect. Finally, they chose a box on the driveway. Last week, she refused to leave the nest when I opened the door. This time, she gave me the evil eye, warning me away, before she finally flew off. I counted 5 little white eggs, nestled in the feathers lining the nest. She's a good mom who doesn't give up!