Thursday, January 24, 2013

SEO - The Search Continues

I am becoming obsessed with the goal of a terrific portrait photo of a Short-eared Owl. They can be found wintering in many different places in Kentucky, but I somehow manage to miss all the great trips my friends take at the last minute. Eileen came back saying, "We saw 35 of them take off at one time!"  Three days later her friend called to say they were all gone.

In Western Kentucky, near Paradise (you remember, "down by the Green River, where Paradise lay," as John Denver sang) the coal companies stripped the minerals out, and have "reclaimed" the area in grasslands, and they often find good raptors there, including Short-eared Owls.

Shelby County is just next door, so when Pat and Jane from the Beckham Bird Club said they saw one right by the road, I asked for directions. We arrived a little early and took the scenic tour of Shelby County farmlands, including some wonderful Kestrel sightings. By 5 o'clock the main show was ready to begin. At least three SEO's soared and circled each other, or flew low to the ground ... on the other side of the field.  We could see them pretty well through binoculars though. I put some mouse offerings on the fence posts near the car, although they weren't interested enough to investigate.

But how often do you get to see owls in synchronized flight? Pretty cool.

By the time the sun set over the silos on the neighboring farm, our fingers were turning to icicles, and we decided to go for coffee and supper. I intend to keep looking for Short-eared Owls whenever I can, since I am determined to find one sitting on a fencepost long enough and near enough for a good photo! Wish me luck!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sandhill Crane Festival

As we arrived at Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, a heavy layer of frost coated everything. Only two or three birds could be seen through the fog, and even they disappeared as the fog thickened. I assumed there was water somewhere, but we sure couldn't see it. The strange rattling kar-r-r-o-o-o drifted up to the birders sipping coffee as they waited for the fog to lift. Sounding and looking like ghosts, one or two of these large birds appeared and faded into the fog calling... By 10:30 we had enough light to see the water, and hoped to see thousands of Sandhill Cranes.

Birders are used to this though. "Oh, yeah," someone says, "We have thousands of _____ (fill in the blank with the name of the birds you want to see)." But it rained all week in Tennessee and most of them must have moved elsewhere. The birds we saw, however, were beautiful as they grazed in the corn stubble along the water's edge. All cranes are omnivorous. Sandhill Cranes are generalists and feed on a wide variety of plant tubers, grains, small vertebrates (e.g. mice and snakes), and invertebrates such as insects or worms. Sandhills find these foods in uplands and in shallow wetlands. Like most cranes, flightless chicks forage primarily on a diet of insects and other protein filled foods during their early stages of rapid growth. The Sandhill's tendency to feed on plant tubers creates conflicts with farming. Sandhill Cranes are adept at probing in the ground and finding planted agricultural seeds such as corn. When large flocks of cranes feed on planted fields, the damage they cause to an unprotected crop can be severe enough to force the farmer to replant the entire field.

A speaker from the International Crane Foundation, in Baraboo, WI, expanded our knowledge of cranes. The different sub-species of Sandhill Crane vary greatly in size and weight. Lesser Sandhills, who breed at more northern latitudes such as the arctic, are the smallest, weighing on average about 6-7 pounds and standing 3-3.5 feet tall. At the other end of the extreme, temperate-nesting Greater Sandhills (the ones we saw) are the largest sub-species and average 4.5-5 feet tall and 10-14 pounds. Body plumage is characterized by varying shades of gray. In many areas, wild Sandhills preen iron-rich mud into their feathers creating a deep rusty brown hue which lasts during spring and summer. As fall advances, these rusty feathers molt and the birds return to their grayish appearance.

We all scanned the air for more birds. You could find a few flying together, but if you looked closely, more and more skeins (I think that's what they are called) could be seen in the distance. The sun was warm and bright, and I think many of the cranes took advantage of the good weather to continue their migration southward. I'm not really sure how much farther these birds might go, since it is the middle of January already. Different populations travel to different wintering grounds. Dick and some of the others saw a few Whooping Cranes, but I missed them.

Throughout the day, we had great luck finding raptors. Several different Bald Eagles, both adults and immatures came to the Refuge, along with a Golden Eagle. As we debated the identity of these brown eagles, one birder came up with a good rule of thumb. "Think chocolate," he advised. "The Golden Eagle is the color of milk chocolate and the Bald Eagle is more like dark chocolate." Sounds good to me! We also spied a Merlin, American Kestrels, lots of Red Tail Hawks, a pair of Northern Harriers and a Cooper's Hawk. In my book, this certainly made up for a rather slow day for the Cranes!

The Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival is run entirely by volunteers, and they don't charge anything to attend. Kudos to everyone who worked so hard all weekend - the volunteer birders, shuttle bus drivers, TWRA, and all the sponsors and vendors. It's hard to choose between wonderful presentations in a room vs. freezing your toes off in the field for the bird of a lifetime! Brian "Fox" Ellis, the storyteller, attended the dinner Saturday night as Charles Darwin. Since I studied Darwin after our trip to the Galapagos, I especially enjoyed his performance. I understand, however, that the little country school that serves as home base for the festival, will be closing next year, and hope they can make new arrangements. After all, you never know which year will be the one when there actually ARE thousands of cranes to be seen! Birders are always hopeful!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Tennessee Trip

This weekend is the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival, and since we've never taken in any of the attractions of Chattanooga, we decided to come a day or two early. After driving through rain, wind, sleet, sunshine and lightning within ONE MILE, we made it to the hotel. Chattanooga has gone green, and we caught the free electric shuttle bus down to the famous Chattanooga Aquarium, a great way to spend a rainy windy afternoon. We were almost the only people there though. The aquarium is well designed, using their space effectively as visitors move around the building, with clear directions to find the next exhibit. The best part is that they do not limit themselves to just fish in the exhibits!  We began at the top of the building with a touch pool of stingrays, including this ultra-friendly guy who kept waving and coming above the water to peer at us!

The Aquarium has a building for salt water and another for fresh water. We stood there peering in all the hiding places for each group of frogs, beginning with these green tree frogs.

Who can resist penguins! I've never seen so many different species of penguins in one place, including these macaroni penguins. A map with Antarctica as the center showed all the places (including the Galapagos Islands) where penguins can be found and I was surprised at the many places they live, all south of the equator, of course. New Zealand and Australia are big on the list.

Aquariums are always a special challenge to the photographer. First there are the distortions between air and water. The thick glass/plastic of the tanks do funny things to the light, which is none too bright by the time it reaches wherever I am standing. If you use a flash, you must stand at an angle to avoid a huge white blob in the middle of your picture. With no flash, the animals move too fast to capture without blurring. Grrr!

Most of all, we enjoyed all the free-flying birds at the aquarium! Especially in the fresh water building appropriate birds for the environment were loose in the enclosure. This Wood Duck and a Snowy Egret were together in the delta exhibit, along with Blue Birds and some kind of warbler! A volunteer said they all had some sort of injury and were non-releasable. Who knew to bring binoculars to an aquarium!

This morning we headed for Lookout Mountain and the Incline Railroad. At first, it was fine, silently rising past the houses and trees. As you reach the bluffs near the top, the incline reaches 72 percent, which seemed to be going straight up! UGH - agoraphobia began to strike, but I made it to the top OK. How in the world, I thought, do they keep this thing from crashing to the bottom again before we get off it! And there was snow at the top. This is looking more dangerous all the time, and we still have to ride it back down.

Lookout Mountain was part of a Civil War battle that is still a big thing in Chattanooga. The National Parks Service has a historical site explaining how the Union forces managed to defeat the Confederates here and on nearby Missionary Ridge to solidify their position in this Confederate city. Did you know that Gen. Sherman began is march through Georgia to the sea from Chattanooga? I always thought he went all the way across the deep South from the Mississippi River. I can't imagine how they ever got all those cannon to the top. There must be another route that doesn't have to climb a vertical cliff face.

Safely at the bottom of Lookout Mountain is the Chattanooga Nature Center and Arboretum. Even in January, we found plenty to look at hiking around the property. Look, isn't that hellebore over there? Hellebore actually blooms in January, and, as always, once you find one example, you notice it everywhere.

What in the world is that big bird in the tree ahead? It isn't a vulture... Ah, in the yard below the tree was a flock of about 12 wild turkeys, and when we opened to car door to get the camera, they all flew up into the trees. How cool! I've never seen turkeys fly like that! Well, tomorrow we go to the Hiwassee Refuge to Sandhill Cranes. More to come...

Friday, January 11, 2013

Whoo's Cooking on the Anchorage Trail?

By January 11, my birding friend Kathie, who recently relocated to Tucson, AZ, has 102 birds on her list for the month. It's a good thing I'm not into listing big time. Since I've had a cold and sore throat for the last 10 days, I haven't been out of the house much. But the rain stopped, and the sun came out this afternoon. With temps at 64, I couldn't pass up the chance to do a little birding on the Anchorage Trail, which is very popular here in Louisville.

I watch for any kind of animal, not just birds. This little squirrel decided that a bird's nest box makes a dandy place to spend the winter. As soon as he saw me looking, he ducked in to hide. Wonder if he'll give it up when the birds are ready to nest?

I do most of my birding by ear, and heard all the familiar Kentucky birds this afternoon. Bluebirds gave their sad little whistle, Cardinals chipped boldly, and the Kingfisher cackled on the other side of the lake, while Gold Finches called for potato chips as they flitted among the branches. This Song Sparrow serenaded more melodically than the pair of Canada Geese on the lake.

True to their names, the Mute Swans were silent, but very beautiful.

Then I heard a loud keer, keer, keer, from two Red Shouldered Hawks, and took off down the trail in pursuit. I saw a flash of wings, and then lost them. But there was a dark blob in the branches. Quietly I crept forward, binoculars in hand. OMG! It's NOT a hawk in the tree but a BARRED OWL! 

On other birding trips here, we saw a Barred Owl peering out of its hole in a tree, but I wasn't the one to locate it. I've never had good luck trying to find owls in the wild on my own. Even the GHO in Arizona was pointed out by the leader of that trip, who knew where it liked to sleep during the day.

But I found this bird all on my own! Whooppee! Here is was, 2:00 o'clock in the afternoon, and this Barred Owl was bright eyed and, well, not exactly bushy-tailed, but certainly alert, keeping an eye on the neighborhood while counting on his marvelous camouflage for privacy. Even when he knew I was walking under his tree, he just ignored me. How cool!