Thursday, March 21, 2013

March Madness

Bufflehead Ducks on Ohio River
Yes, in Kentucky, March Madness means basketball. Well, don't shoot me, but I don't really care about basketball. 

Coots Looking for a Handout at Freeman Lake
But when the KY Bird List sends a notice about some cool bird that has been sighted, that's when I go into action. Get out the bins! Put gas in the tank! Buy a large cup of coffee at Thornton's! It's time for a ROAD TRIP! Yesterday Pat and Jane Bell said the white trout lilies were blooming at Bernheim, and Common Loons in breeding plumage were at Freeman Lake. WooHoo! That's worth a trip, so let's go.

Now, here's where the madness part comes in. When I left home at 9:30 this morning it was 22 degrees! Hey, it's supposed to be Spring, right? How about some sunshine, and warm breezes? Nope, cold temps, a few snow flurries, and a biting wind coming across the lake. BRRRRR! But when March Madness hits, I have to just suck it up, put on the long johns, and head out anyway.

White Trout Lily
 I looked online but could not find an answer to a pressing question in my mind this morning. When it's this cold, why don't the early blooming wild flowers freeze? Do they have some sort of anti-freeze in their sap? Dick is taking a botany class at U of L this semester, so I asked him to see if his professor knows. Look how small these trout lilies are compared to the brown leaves. They always bloom early and I usually miss them, but not this year! The bloodroot is still wrapped in its protecting leaf, like a child wearing a coat. When the sun comes out for a few days, they will open up for pollination.

Turkey Vulture Sunning at Bernheim Forest
This solitary Turkey Vulture at Bernheim looks pretty cold. Did you know they can reduce their body temperature at night, then sit in the sun to warm back up in the morning?

Common Loon - Freeman Lake
Common Loons were the target bird du jour at Freeman Lake. About 5 individuals swam there - waaayyyy out in the middle, of course. Got some great looks through the scope. I've only seen them in winter colors, and these were in the full black and white.

Pied-billed Grebe - Freeman Lake
The little Pied-billed Grebes swam closer to shore, and their stubby little beaks are unmistakable. I thought I saw some Horned Grebes with horns, but they were so far away I was probably just imagining it.

Red Breasted Mergansers
A small flock of Red Breasted Mergansers napped on the water. Although the wind was blowing fiercely, their head feathers always look like they are having a bad feather day. A little later, they all woke up and the males competed to see who could raise his head the highest as the females watched.

Killdeer at Freeman Lake
Couldn't resist two little killdeer. They are so seldom close and on the ground for a nice photo.

Duck Love
Freeman Lake is known for some of the oddest colored ducks you've ever seen. Now I know why. Duck Love was the popular activity on the lake today. Sometimes 3-4 males tried to mate with the same female at the same time. She was clear under water for quite a while, and I assume she can hold her breath for a long time. Hey, get a room guys!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Why Do Birds Matter?

Hermit Thrush
Why am I a birder? Why do birds matter in general, and specifically, why do they matter to me? Wow, such serious thoughts for a birder to have after a blustery morning of birding in March! We received the March/April issue of Audubon Magazine this week, and it is particularly thought provoking. Then Jeff Gordon, President of the American Birding Association, was the speaker at the Beckham Bird Club annual banquet last night, and talked about the image birders present to the world.

Golden-crowned Kinglet
The magazine quotes the opinions of famous and not-so-famous birders, and you will probably agree with them. Birds make any place a chance for discovery. Birds are important because they keep systems in balance. Their fate is our own. Birds remind us that there are angels. Our hearts soar on their wings and their songs. What’s good for the birds is also good for us.

Brown Creeper Camouflaged
The article that caught my interest, however, was entitled "Follow the Money."
Some might not realize the tangible value of birds, but it would be foolish to underestimate how tough life would be without them.
Birds keep farmers in business. They provide critical information about our environment, also known as "ecosystem services." History is packed with stories of birds saving the day from an invasion of insects. Just picture those elusive little warblers, patiently jumping from leaf to leaf looking for insects. Raptors provide natural rodent control without damaging the environment for other animals or plants.

Brown Creeper
Birds stimulate the economy by being beautiful and attracting birders by the thousands. I know how much I spend on birding equipment and travel. U.S. Fish and Wildlife made a study in 2006 estimating that birders spend $12 billion annually on travel, and an additional $24 billion on equipment like binoculars, camping gear and nest boxes. That money ripples through the economy and generates $82 billion in output, employs 671,000 people and enriches state and federal governments by $10 billion. Have you been to any of the big birding festivals recently? Yes, I would believe these figures. What this country needs is more birders! Why can't some politician base a campaign on this?

Great Horned Owlets
Of course, not everyone is interested in birds enough to go out on a cold snowy morning in March, just to look for birds. In fact, many people would say we are all crazy to do so! But lots of people like to stay nice and warm at home looking at their computer or soap operas on TV, and the birding option for those folks is Nest Cams on the Internet. There are many options for about any species you can name. People can get addicted to true reality TV by watching these nest cams. You see the patience and diligence of the mother on the nest, no matter what the weather. You watch as the parents struggle to find enough food for their growing youngsters. If a predator appears, you gasp in horror. In short, that family becomes yours, and that feeling of connection, of relation, makes all the difference. You cheer when the chicks leave the nest, and hope they can survive in the big bad world out there. It makes you think of your own children....Now the birds are important, where before was merely indifference. Why do birds matter? Because they are like us.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Owling in Paradise


And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry, my son, but you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away

I remember hearing John Denver sing this song when I was in college, and yesterday I went birding at this very place. In the late 1950's, the Bucyrus-Erie Company got the contract to build the world's largest shovel, to be known as the 3850. It took two years to build and each piece was shipped by rail to the new mine at Paradise, to be named the Sinclair Strip Mine. Roads had to be built and a special rail line was made. Special rail cars were made just to haul some of the parts of this big shovel. The assembly of the shovel took eleven months. Once the mine became operational, some of the construction people became miners. In the mean time, TVA was building the world's largest power plant nearby. In the early 1960's, the Sinclair Mine became operational as well as the Paradise Steam Plant. For the next twenty-five years, Sinclair Mines and Paradise Steam Plant were partners in the production of power.

In 1986, the Sinclair Mine had removed most of the coal in the area. The 3850 Shovel was not through. It had been a "star" and the center of attention for almost three decades and it had one more job to perform. With fanfare, the news media, a lot of the miners, the company that built the machine and the company that operated the machine, State and Federal Government and the EPA looking on, the 3850 had one more big dig to make. It would now be used to dig its' own grave. The 3850 faced the new pit and started to dig. It settled into its' final resting place and was soon covered with the Kentucky soil and rocks that it had been digging for a quarter of a century. Peabody had to reclaim the barren pits under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, and now Kentucky Fish and Wildlife operates the Peabody WMA there.

Preston and Shari Forsythe live nearby and regularly post to the KY Bird List about the birds they see at the Sinclair unit at Peabody WMA, and they invited me to join them for an evening of "Owling in Paradise." Glad I went with someone experienced, since I would quickly have become lost of the gravel roads in the gathering darkness.  Arriving about an hour or so before sunset, we were immediately treated by 5-6 Short-eared Owls chasing each other around on one of the warmest afternoons in months.

As we drove slowly with our windows down, Shari spotted what she thought to be a Mockingbird perched nearby. Closer inspection revealed a Loggerhead Shrike glowing in the sun! We all expected to see them in Florida, but this is the second I've found in Kentucky this winter.  Shrikes hunt the same small mammals as the owls and harriers in this area.

At times, the Harriers and Owls would chase each other. Territorial disputes? There seemed to be so many birds in the same place that the mice didn't stand a chance.

The Paradise power plant still operates with TVA, and the smoke billowing from the towers has a distinct yellow tinge to it. I wonder what their scrubber capacity is. I am definitely torn by this issue. I want a clean environment for our wildlife and birds, yet I depend on electricity just like everyone else. I don't like strip mines (and definitely not mountaintop removal), but since the mines closed, the economy of this area has taken a big hit. Not prosperous looking by any means. Some of the lakes and ponds have water, but I didn't see cattails growing along the edges. I assume Fish and Wildlife keeps an eye on the acid levels here, but I do wonder a bit...

We hoped to get a glimpse of the Pan-STARR comet just after sunset, but a layer of haze or clouds blocked our view. While standing on the highpoint of the S2 area, we must have sighted 14-15 owls, given that it's hard to keep an accurate count of rapidly flying birds. Driving out again, we found another 4-5 owls perched in branches, looking all around as we crept up to them so I could take a quick photo through the car window.  Wonderful owling this trip, but I'm still working on a really good closeup. As Scarlett O'Harra said, "Tomorrow is another day."