Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Dolphins of Destin

Another great day in Florida. We took an early morning walk on the beach, then enjoyed the sun while playing four close games of shuffleboard. Does this mean we are getting old? No, says Dick. He played it when he was just a kid on vacations!

Let's take a boat ride before the weather changes and it starts to rain on Thursday. The dolphin tour started with a snack for the gulls, thrown from the back of the boat. Talk about your feeding frenzy! I even noticed the white trailing edge on the wings, and white tail of mature Laughing Gulls, while the immature birds have more brown on their back and wings, and a dark bar on the edge of their tails. Oddly enough, we have seen no other gulls than the Laughing Gulls though.

The captain says they have about a 98% success rate in finding dolphins, and today was a stellar day! The Gulf was choppy, so we didn't go much beyond the stone jetty, but a pod of seven dolphins entertained us. We even saw one little dorsal fin belonging to a baby just born this year. Felt sorry for them though, with so many boats looking for them. The engine noises must have interfered with echolocation.

One guy didn't seem to mind the boats, and surfed in our bow wave. The faster we went, the faster he went!

Swimming dolphins look much better in videos than still photos, don't you think?

It starts getting dark around 4:30 in CST, so we stopped at a bayside bar for a beer and beautiful sunset. Then back to the room where I managed to reduce over 600 photos taken today to about 225.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Read the Field Guide

When we come south, it's always in the winter, of course. Who wants the extra heat in summer? We love birding at the beach, but I always bemoan the fact that we only know these birds in their winter plumage.

The little Ruddy Turnstone is one of my favorites, since I always recognize its orange legs and can make a positive ID. However, the field guide says their "harlequin pattern in breeding plumage is distinctive." I actually read their full entry in the field guide today, and found that they breed in the Arctic and are circumpolar. I will never see them in breeding plumage, and not just because I don't come south in the summer!

Distinguishing Plovers and Sandpipers is always difficult for me too. I love the little Sanderlings who run back and forth in the shallow water. Today, I recognized the little round bird as a plover - a good first step.

But they moved away from the water, and just stood on the white sand higher up the beach, where they almost disappeared completely. Hooray! Snowy Plovers, ID confirmed by a local birder we met! Lifer!! The diminutive Snowy Plover is a year-round resident of undisturbed Gulf Coast beaches. This well-camouflaged species nests on large sandy beaches between April and July, laying three eggs (sometimes more) in a shallow scrape. They are easier to find in winter when they form small flocks and mingle with other shorebird species, particularly other plovers. Due to habitat loss and disturbance, the Snowy Plover is listed as a threatened species in Florida. As the incubating females and nests are difficult to detect, the eggs and chicks are vulnerable to trampling by pedestrians and vehicles on beaches. Looking at my photos, I noticed that each bird wears multiple leg bands.

Dunlins with the droopy bill are also circumpolar. Another bird we will never see in breeding plumage. At least, we think this is a Dunlin...

Winter gulls and terns are a challenge too, especially those species in which juveniles that take several years to mature. I can easily recognize the almost orange bill and black fringe of the Royal Tern. They remind me of Larry of the Three Stooges!

Most of the winter terns seem to have that white "bald" spot on their heads. Thanks to my new 60x zoom lens, I saw that these terns also have a yellow tip on their bills - Sandwich Terns, another Lifer for us!  I can now remember this bird by thinking that it has a bit of mustard on its bill from eating the sandwich.

The Forster's Tern in another "baldy," but look for the black comma of feathers around the eye, and orange legs. Cornell's website says they have a forked tail, but honestly, I don't think I've ever seen one flying. They breed in the Midwest, but I only see them along the Gulf coast in winter.

Great Blue Herons are all over, and I've taken loads of photos of them over the years, but I usually focus on their heads and fringed breeding plumage, of course. Somehow today, I noticed brown legs and a white stripe down its throat that I'd not seen before. For a while, I thought we were seeing Tricolors, but Great Blues are about twice the size of a Tricolor. Several perched on light posts, waiting for an opportune moment at the fishing pier.

Ah, what can I say about sparrows! We saw a Seaside Sparrow listed as a resident here, and thought I had one in this photo. Closer examination, and sharp perusal of the field guide made me decide this was a Savannah Sparrow after all. But that's OK. This bird was in the grass quite a way off, so once again the zoom lens comes to the rescue.

As we walked around the jetty to the beach, we noticed brown, well, blobs, scattered along the sand. They are living creatures, or were living creatures, since many had dried up in the air and sunshine. This one was still in enough water to swim with its little "wings."  I think they are a variety of sea slug called the sea hare. Most of the sea slugs you find online are brightly colored, while these were the color of mud. Can you believe it? There is a forum devoted to sea slugs at http://www.seaslugforum.net/.  It was surprising that none of the nearby birds gobbled them down as they lay helpless on the sand.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Bernheim in the Rain

Dick goes to volunteer at Bernheim Forest on a regular basis, but I haven't been for some time lately. When we received a notice about the dedication of the new Earth Measure sculpture, I thought it would be a good time to see what's new. Bernheim's website says:
Earth Measure is an educational, interactive and multi-dimensional earthwork that must be experienced to be appreciated. It poses questions on the fundamental forms of the circle, square and triangle. It invites discovery by all ages both physically and intellectually. It places the visitor in a meadow and beckons them to tune in to acoustic ecology and soundscape science. In other words, the sculpture both frames the environment through its “lens” and captures the sounds of seasonal wildlife through audio waves directed to the center of the listening dome or parabolic sphere. It is simultaneously simple and complex, scientific and artistic, monumental and graceful.
Despite the Weather Channel's prediction, it poured like crazy during the speeches and dedication. Soon after, of course, the rain stopped and eventually the sun broke through. Dick's class of first graders adjusted to the change, and so did I. Clad in raincoat, I set off for photos of the rain around the Big Meadow.
The sun comes out and the birds begin singing. All the dried flowers in the meadow are full of little seeds. Yummy, all the birds are coming to chow down on the seeds. I even found Field Sparrows and what I think is an American Tree Sparrow. What is a Tree Sparrow doing in a meadow?


The big fall festival, ColorFest, is this weekend, and there will be plenty of color for everyone to enjoy! Raptor Rehab will be there with live hawks and owls too. Just dress warmly, since the high temp won't be very high.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Rose Awards

Amy Langdon, Dick Dennis and Wren Smith
My husband Dick volunteers at many places, as I do, but I think his heart belongs to Bernheim Forest and Arboretum.  Wren Smith is a mentor for both of us, and they do a good job of letting volunteers know they are appreciated. The Louisville Convention and Visitor's Bureau sponsors awards for people who best represent our community to visitors and help bring those visitors to Louisville. This year Bernheim nominated Dick for the Rose Award - Recognition of Service Excellence! There are several categories, including Accommodations, Attractions, Dining, Transportation and Volunteers.  Well, Dick did not win in his category, but the whole awards luncheon was very exciting.

A new Louisville event, the Jack-o-Lantern Spectacular, will be held in Iroquois Park October 10 – November 2 with 5,000 carved pumpkins lining a ¼-mile trail, illuminated at night as an “art show” daily from dusk to midnight during the week and 1 a.m. on the weekends. Many of the pumpkins were displayed at the luncheon, and free tickets were presented to all attendees.

All the nominees were featured in a wall of photos. "Oh my gosh! This is the taxi driver we had last night!" I exclaimed. After our Beckham Bird Club meeting on Tuesday night, we couldn't get into my car. The Prius is not supposed to lock with the smart key inside, but it does if the battery is low. You guessed it - that's where my keys were. We called a cab to go home for the spare set, and Ras, a Mod Squad man for sure, was our driver. He was very friendly and outgoing, and we were delighted when he won his category of Transportation. I've always said Louisville is the biggest little town in the world! Four Roses was the big sponsor, so everyone got a long-stem rose to take home, and free drinks. I don't often drink bourbon at lunch!

Professional photographers took our photos before a green screen, then printed it with the fancy rose/city skyline in the background. We felt like such celebrities!

Lunch was in the big big big conference room. The sign said it had a capacity of 741, and it looked pretty full to me. I'm always astounded at these events. How in the world do they prepare all this food and have it hot and ready to be served to this many people at the same time? I ate more than I should have, but it was for a good reason, right? TV cameras allowed us to actually see the MC in the front via large TV screens, while spotlights played across the room just like the Oscars. What fun! Thank you Bernheim, for nominating Dick for this award.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Finally Camping Out

When I was a Girl Scout in elementary school, our troop went camping several times a year. I never realized what a rare and valuable experience that was, and never appreciated how much work our wonderful leaders put into those expeditions. Of course, we lived near the established camp called Ross Trails, in southwest Ohio, (which is now closed, I hear) so we didn't have to deal with tents and the cots were already set up. As adults, Dick and I have talked on and off throughout the years about going camping together. He and Andrew used to go with the Indian Guides, so he had a tent and some equipment. But I never could deal with the food end of camping, and we just put it off
A couple who volunteer at Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve are veteran campers, however, and Doug has organized campouts for up to 100 people with the Boy Scouts. Just what we needed! Camping out with training wheels! Come to think of it, we were the only ones there without children. 

Doug planned the meals and bought all the food, then showed us how to start a fire using dryer lint as tinder. You can get a little "flint and steel" starter for about $7 he says. We made hobo stew using canned vegetables and pre-cooked sausage or burgers, seasoned to taste and wrapped in heavy duty foil. Yum! Waiting for them to cook, and finding your supper among all the others was the hardest part.
We had lots of night activities planned. Biologists set up mist nets on the Preserve that night, hoping to catch some bats for banding and release. Since we had such a large group, however, we took a hike without flashlights, and in complete silence, just to feel the night. It's amazing how much you can see if you leave the lights off.  Of course, it helps that the Harvest Moon was shining brightly!

I brought out some of the mounted owls from the Nature Center and talked about owls, playing their sounds, but none were interested in investigating our group then. We did see a couple bats flying by the frog pond, but no moths came to our lighted sheet. A cold front had moved through the night before, and I don't think there were many insects around. Later that night, two moths were attracted to the bright camp lantern while we cleaned up for the night. Didn't want any raccoons tearing up our supplies! Singing around the campfire and s'mores entertained everyone just before bed. I thought I would remember more of the old Scout songs...will have to look them up before the next campout.

We got the tent and air mattress set up in the afternoon, and I knew to sleep in sweats that night since the temp would be going way down. Fortunately, my husband is very warm, but the cold seeped up from beneath, and I'm not sure if I really slept any or not. Didn't feel like it. I enjoyed listening to the crickets, and a pack of coyotes howled at the Harvest Moon somewhere. Once in a while we heard a Screech Owl and maybe a Great Horned Owl calling in the night. Overall, a very cool night, in both meanings!

When the sun rose, a mist covered the meadow, while we all enjoyed blueberry pancakes and leftover dessert from the night before. You just don't worry about counting Weight Watchers points when you go camping!  I'm looking up how to make coffee over a campfire for the next trip. Doug says it is possible to get the tent back in that little duffel bag it came in, but I'm not quite sure I believe him. Thanks you, Doug and Charon, for arranging a really fun campout!

Saturday, August 31, 2013

What We Saw on Our Summer Vacation

Black Bear
When you meet someone at Glacier National Park, the first question they ask is "Have you seen any bears?" We hadn't until today, just as we finished our last hike and prepared to drive back to the condo. A group of people with binoculars are always looking at something good, like mountain goats or sheep, but the big prize is a bear, so now we can say we saw a bear at Glacier National Park.  The best thing is seeing it way up the mountain, and not on the path in front of you. Every ranger gives you the safety rules in bear country before going out on a hike. They love to sell you bear spray (mace) but the bells don't do any good at all. One story says the bear kept following the man down the trail as he backed away, stopping when he did. Finally the man figured the bear just wanted him to move out of the way. He did, and the bear went past him, like any other hiker in a hurry! I was glad this bear was way, way, way up the mountain. The 50x zoom on my camera was able to capture him pretty well.

American Dipper
As birders, Dick and I arrived with a list of target birds to look for. One was the American Dipper, or Water Ouzel, which walks on the bottom of rushing mountain streams, looking for tasty morsels under the rocks. We finally found two of them today after looking all week! Yeah! There are many other target birds we did not find, this trip at least. Guess we'll have to come back sometime and try again.

Cedar Waxwing
One of my favorite birds from home, this Cedar Waxwing sat in a tree for a long time posing for the camera, unlike most of the other birds we've seen this week. But where were the rest of his buddies? You normally find them in groups, not one at a time.

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch
We had to explain what a "Life Bird" is this week. I'm so used to talking with birders, it never occurred to me that someone didn't know what I meant by that phrase. Now, you birders tell me. If I saw a bird in the years before actually becoming a birder, and starting to keep a life list, am I allowed to count it as a life bird now? That Dipper for example - we saw them in the Tetons years ago. Is it a life bird now that I keep a list or not? Many of our target birds eluded us, but we did add 6 new birds to our list: Barrow's Goldeneye duck, White-tailed Ptarmigan, California Gull (at the grocery store), Olive-sided Flycatcher, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch and Pine Grosbeak.

I've seen more rodents here at the park, than any other park I've been in. The chipmunks are absolutely fearless, as are the various kinds of ground squirrels. The red squirrels have black tails, and the hoary marmot is huge. The ground squirrels chip frequently, sounding much like birds.

Almost any trail can lead you to a waterfall. This is Running Eagle waterfall, named for an actual Blackfoot woman who became a warrior and the chief of her tribe. Now, while water levels are low, the water comes out of the rocks. In spring, it will flow over the top. When the glaciers melt away completely, many streams will also disappear when the winter snows melt in the spring.

Marias Pass is where US 2 goes over the Continental Divide when traveling from west to east. I was really surprised the first time I sped past the sign, since it didn't feel like we were nearly high enough to be crossing the Continental Divide. At only 5,213 feet in elevation, the mountains tower over the pass, but remember, a pass is supposed to be a low place to cross higher mountain ranges. The pass proved ideal for a railroad, because its approach was broad and open, within a valley ranging from one to six miles wide, and at a gentle grade that would not require extensive excavation or rockwork. Construction of the railroad through the pass began on August 1, 1890, starting from Fort Assinniboine toward Marias Pass.

There are many quaint hotels and inns built early in the Park's history, and often related to the railroads. The Izaak Walton Inn, in Essex, however, takes the cake. Originally, it provided housing for railroad employees, and now it uses old railroad cars as hotel rooms for park visitors. What fun!

Amtrak still stops directly in front of the Glacier Park Lodge, which was built almost a century ago by the Great Northern Railway. One of the most striking features of Glacier Park Lodge is undoubtedly the massive logs used in the construction. The immense timbers that support the Lodge were probably 500 to 800 years old when they were cut and all of them retain their bark to this day. There are 60 of them, 36 to 42 inches in diameter and 40 feet long. The timbers in the lobby are Douglas fir and the verandahs are supported by Cedars from Washington. Each lodge or hotel in the park is fascinating, even to visit.

Now we are trying to find everything we brought, before getting on the plane tomorrow. The kids say our air conditioning at home isn't working. Sigh. I like being on vacation.