Friday, February 26, 2021

Winter Ducks

Generally, we don't get big freezes in Kentucky. But when we do, you can always count on seeing a lot of ducks. If the lakes and rivers they normally inhabit farther north are frozen, they can still find open water in Kentucky.
Canada Geese
Although Canada Geese still migrate, many geese have decided to stay in Kentucky year-round. If it gets cold, they can tough it out. And the cold spell doesn't last too long. Just tuck your beak and one foot in your feathers and you can stay warm.
Redhead Ducks
Diving ducks, also called sea ducks, are typically birds of large, deep lakes and rivers, coastal bays and inlets. Their speculums (on the wings) lack the brilliance of those on most dabblers. Most patter along the water in taking wing. They all dive for food, whereas dabblers rarely dive. They also have a more rapid wingbeat than most dabblers. So what are these diving ducks doing on a small open patch of an otherwise frozen lake?

Northern Shovelers
Dabbling ducks, or puddle ducks, frequent shallow waters such as flooded fields and marshes. They feed by tipping up rather than diving. When taking flight, they spring into the air instead of pattering across the water. Most swim with their tail held clear of the water and have colorful, iridescent speculum (a rectangular patch at the hind edge of the wing). Since everyone is cold with heads tucked under their wings, you can't rely on the head color for identification. Check the body colors instead. The rusty stomach on this group indicates Northern Shovelers.

Mute Swans and Mallards
The brown stuff on the ice? Bird poop I think.
Mute Swans in flight
Mute Swans have a a bright orange beak, making them easier to identify than the native swans. Mute swans were imported into America, and many have escaped into the wild.

The Ohio River is always a good place to look for ducks in the winter. Jeffersonville, IN, has a Fisherman's Wharf along the water which is the place to start. No driftwood to try to peer over or around! This huge raft of ducks is on the upstream end, and you would need a spotting scope to tell the birds apart.

Lesser Scaup
Either bring a field guide along, or take photos of these ducks. Since we don't see them all year,  it's a challenge to differentiate them. You will find white or gray in different locations of the body. Many have red heads, so you can't rely on that alone. Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks are similar at a distance.
Lesser Scaup female
 The Lesser Scaup female is also similar to the female Ring-necked Duck. Of course, you can't see a ring around the neck at all, so I don't know why they are called this!

Ring-billes Gull
Some of my really good birder buddies can tell the difference between species of gulls who come to the Ohio from Northern frozen waters. I usually guess they are Ring-billed Gulls, but you can't see the bill unless they are perched or floating on the water. In flight, you only see the wings.
Ring-necked Ducks
Rings around the necks? No way. But the male Ring-necked Ducks do have a white crescent just below their shoulders and a ring around the bill. I tend to call them Ring-billed Ducks.
Ruddy Duck males winter feathers
And remember, the males of a bird you think you know can change colors in the winter. All these are male Ruddy Ducks, without the stiff tail that stands up straight. 

Eared Grebe in winter feathers
I hard there were some Loons on the river, and thought this was one of them. Closer examination of the photo showed a very short bill, unlike the Loons. Aha, it's not a duck or loon at all, but some kind of Grebe! It has a bright red eye, and a thin white bill. An Eared Grebe, and the first I've seen in winter feathers! 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Wine and Short-eared Owls

On January 21, it hadn't started to sleet or snow yet. We saw postings from Ky Birders about a Short-eared Owl at Talon Winery on the south side of Lexington. Thinking that the winery should be fairly empty on a Thursday afternoon, we headed down I-64 to Lexington, planning to have a little wine, then watch for the owl. As it turned out, there was a good sized crowd in the tasting room, but everyone kept their distance. The largest group took themselves outside to drink and talk.

Short-eared Owls breed in the far north, but come to Kentucky in the winter, favoring open grasslands. In other years, I have found them at the old Paradise coal mine site, and at a farm somewhere between E-town and Leitchfield. Other notices this year found them near Paris as well as Lexington. The best thing is that they come out to hunt about half-an-hour before sunset, and there us usually enough light for good photos. You can often find Northern Harrier Hawks in the same location.
As sunset approached, we walked around many of the open fields, but the wind made it pretty cold, so we decided to sit in the car instead. We couldn't tell which field to look in, but another car was sitting in the parking lot, and it looked like the lady had a camera. "She's here for the owl too," I thought, and sure enough the owl swooped out of the fence row. There was no place for it to land, so it just flew low over the grass. Look how long its wings are! This one made no noise while we were there, but a recording has them making a barking kind of sound rather than a hoot. It didn't take long for the sun to dip below the horizon and we started home. After cataract surgery and lens implants, I find it difficult to drive at night any more. My pupils open bigger than the lens, so the lens edge captures any available light, making huge halos around car lights, stop lights, etc. I'll have to think about going out at sunset again.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Oh the Pandemic!

Oh, the Pandemic! In reviewing this blog, I find that I posted a lot during the spring migration of 2020. There were good birds, and I figured I didn't need to wear a mask outside birding, right? The rest of 2020 was a big flop as far as birding and blogging went. We had a big debate about having the whole family (all ten of them) for Christmas. Mostly I just sat in the chair vegetating for months. It's hard to keep track of time when you go nowhere and do nothing.  

The annual Great Backyard Bird Count was scheduled for Saturday, February 13. Louisville Audubon Society partners with Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve for this event, and we decided (in a Zoom board meeting) that we could still do it, by eliminating the part inside and asking everyone to wear masks on the bird walk. However, as the date approached, the weather forecast was terrible, predicting low temperatures in the single digits or teens, so we decided to cancel it for that date. Instead, we used our Facebook page to encourage everyone to participate on their own, posting photos of common winter birds. I was amazed at the reception - more people than normally view that page on FB. Guess they likd my photos.

However, that Saturday, the 13th, was the beginning of our big winter storms. Kentucky wasn't hit as much as Texas, and we didn't lose power at our house (thank heavens!) I would wake up in the night worrying about what to do if the power went out. You can put lighted candles under terracotta pots to help heat a room, but do we have any pots? Looking back at a calendar, the storms and cold only lasted a little over a week. If you asked me how long it was, I would have said about three weeks! We started with a layer of ice, then about 2 inches of snow. Once the roads were cleared it dropped another 2 inches of snow. Dick was brave and went to the YMCA for yoga when he could, and tried to get me to the Mall to walk whenever he could persuade me (not much that is). By the 21st, temperatures started rising above freezing, and life resumed it's regular patterns. Some friends continued to bird throughout this cold-snap, posting beautiful photos. I don't see how they did it. Oh, we finally got reservations for our COVID vaccines on March 2. That was a source of anxiety too. We'll start making some travel plans for later this year. Sigh!

Rare Bird Sightings

Western Grebe on Ohio River
News of a rare bird is the joy and downfall of any birder. Email lists will advise subscribers of something unusual, and hopefully, where it was last sighted. Then the rush begins, depending how rare the bird is. On January 21, 2021, we saw a notice that a Western Grebe had been spotted on the Ohio, and could be found from the benches at Garvin Brown Preserve. We drove out with the spotting scope to scan the river, a challenging task, since it involved looking at each piece of driftwood floating in the water! Finally, we located the bird waaay upstream from our location, and impossible to photograph. A day or two later, it was spotted downstream a bit, to we tried again, and finally found it about 2/3 across the river, but I got a somewhat fuzzy photo. The Western Grebe is commonly found from Canada through California, and sometimes in Mexico. It usually occurs in the great plains and western states, but only occasionally can be found in the eastern half of the United States. So how did it get this far east? And what birder was looking in the river to notice it?

Peregrine Falcon
On the same trip, we passed a Peregrine Falcon digesting her breakfast. Notice the big lump on her breast? That's her crop. Peregrines are not rare birds, neither are they considered as common birds.

White-faced Ibis
Last spring, the word went out for the sighting of a White-faced Ibis at Hays Kennedy Park, which you must walk through to reach Garvin Brown. This is also a bird of the far West and down into Mexico. Why would it come to the Ohio River in Kentucky, and who in town was there to find it? A friend of mine explained it quite simply.  They have wings and can fly wherever they want!

Western Tanager
I found an article at 
which explains this phenomenon pretty well. A vagrant is a wild bird found well outside its expected range. These are usually solitary sightings, with just one bird wowing birders who are lucky enough to find it. Vagrants may arrive at their unusual destinations because of storms, faulty navigation during migration, or simply wandering much further afield than expected. When more spectacular vagrants appear, birders travel significant distances to see them. High-profile vagrant sightings can even make the news. Someone in Kentucky had a Western Tanager in her yard last year.

A bird irruption is a massive movement of birds outside their usual range. This is typically a winter phenomenon, when northern birds such as Evening Grosbeaks, Bohemian Waxwings, or Common Redpolls suddenly appear much further south than typical. These birds have been sighted in Kebtucky this winter, but I haven't found them. This movement is often tied to food supplies or population increases, forcing more birds south to find enough resources for survival. When an irruption happens, birders may not need to travel to see these unexpected birds because the birds come to them.

Bob White
Sometimes a bird that used to be considered as common becomes so rarely sighted, that we have the same excitement at finding it as if it had flown in from Siberia, such as the little Bob White. 

Friday, June 12, 2020

Return to Bernheim?

Morning light in the forest
Dick has volunteered at Bernheim Forest and Arboretum since 2005, working sometimes with the horticulture group, planting and weeding (like he doesn't do enough of that at home?) but mostly interacting with visitors, talking to them about the wonders of nature. Last year this time, he would be at Bernheim 3-4 days a week. But last March, as the coronavirus pandemic grew, Bernheim decided to close altogether during the crisis. The crowds of people coming to see the Forest Giants just couldn't be controlled. It would be safer for all, they decided, to just lock the gates until things changed, a disappointing but understandable decision. Many of the employees have been working from home most of the time as well. Volunteer training has continued via Zoom meetings online. Dick and I helped at one just last week.The volunteers have been recording short videos of why they love nature and Bernheim. They are trying to keep their name out there, but no one can come in.
Daisy with bugs
This morning, however, Dick went out to film a video on site, and they invited me to come along and we could go birding afterwards. Dick said it felt like making a pilgrimage to return there even for just one day. After all, the whole migration season was missed by every birder! No reports to eBird from Bernheim!
As we parked the car in the shade on a cloudless blue-sky morning, we were greeted by a Bluebird who probably lives out in the big meadow.
Gray Catbird
Instead of hiding in the bushes, this Catbird called and followed us around the area near the silos for over an hour, just to see what we were up to, I think. Maybe he missed having an audience.
"Barn Owls"
I used to see Flicker woodpeckers nesting in the sycamore trees every spring, but none were there today. In fact, I have seen NO Flickers at all this spring, wherever we went birding. We did find this pair of "Barn Owl" nuts on a table.
Red-eared Slider at Kingfisher Pond
 Kingfisher Pond is too small to attract any real Kingfishers, but this 9-10 inch long slider was quite comfortable, despite all the duck weed on his back.
Barn Swallow hatchlings

Barn Swallow chicks
Almost ready to fledge

Barn Swallow adult at nest
Every year, Barn Swallows build their nests of mud under the porch roof of a building near Lake Nevin. The adults were busy flying around catching bugs, but we counted at least 22 nests with chicks of various ages. One of my favorite times and places.
Purple Martin Apartments
 Bernheim has hosted Purple Martins for many years. A volunteer keeps up with keeping them clean and ready when they arrive from the south.
Hanging around the apartment building
Iridescent Purple Martins
 Martins chatter incessantly as they catch air-borne bugs, when when they land, you can see how long their wings are and how they shine in the sunshine.
Tree Swallow
One of those shiny birds, however, was not a Martin but a Tree Swallow, who also nests in cavities. The Martin volunteer said that they were here before the Martins arrived, and wouldn't leave. Unusual, isn't it.
Green Darner
Lambs Ear and bee
Purple Coneflower and pollinators
Widow Skimmer dragonfly
 On of the things I enjoy about Bernheim is the variety of habitats, from dense forests, to streams and lakes, and the Big Meadow grasslands. Each is home to a variety of plants and animals.
Field Sparrow
Although the Field Sparrow normally stays hidden in the grass, this guy came bravely up to the top of a flower to serenade us with his bouncing ping-pong ball song. It's always a challenge to get a photo of one.
Green Heron
 The Edible Garden is a big vegetable garden, operated in a completely sustainable manner. It uses solar power where power is needed, and recycles all water. The garden beds are elevated so they can be reached by everyone, including handicapped visitors. They have bee hives to pollinate all the plants. When Isaacs' Cafe is open, all the fruits and vegetables served there are raised in the garden right across the road.
Green Heron in tree
Although I was trying to photograph nonstop dragonflies, a large bird flying across the pond caught my eye. It was a Green Heron, moving from his place of concealment along the pond's edge to an open space on a big tree!
Red-tailed Hawk
I am always excited to find raptors, no mater where we are birding. This big Red-tail was perched in a pine tree, and we ended up walking all the way around it before getting a good view of her face. She was keeping an eye on the meadow for something yummy for lunch.
Indigo Bunting
We hope that Bernheim will be able to re-open soon. Many other nature preserves have remained open for hikers, although all buildings and playgrounds are closed. Perhaps if they could find a way to close off the Giants...

Monday, June 01, 2020

How many Birds?

Black Vulture
The sun was shining this morning and we decided to take a road trip to Lexington, KY. McDonald's had about 8 cars in line, so we passed it by. Wendy's only had 2 cars, but only one person was working inside and he said it would take a while before he could get to us. We finally went into Thornton's for breakfast, which ruined my WeightWatcher's count for the day.
Black Vultures basking in the sun
 It was about 8:45 when we arrived at Jacobson's Park and all the Black Vultures were still on the ground. Are they juveniles who can't fly yet? If it's too early, why aren't they perched in a roosting tree? None of this seemed to bother them at all. They barely looked at us as we walked by.
Black Vulture - white wing tips
It was almost 11 am before we saw many vultures in the air. We submitted 34 Black Vultures to eBird, but it certainly felt like we saw more than that. When they all lifted up, I tried to take a photo but they were too far away to get the impact. Of course, we saw Turkey Vultures too, but not as many, and none on the ground. One of those soaring Turkey Vultures ended up being an Osprey!
Goose Family
When we arrived we saw this nice little goose family, walking down to the lake for their morning swim. As we began to walk down the lake edge ourselves, there were more geese. 4 + 13 + 27 + 30...You get the idea. I usually just estimate the numbers of birds we see, but I actually counted this time and submitted 173 Canada Geese to eBird!! They were everywhere on the bank. An hour or so later, they all moved into the lake for a swim too. I may need to check my new boots this evening to see if there is goose poop on them.
Common Grackle
I didn't count the Common Grackles after this guy gave me the evil eye, but I submitted 150, which may have been a little low.
Killdeer - broken wing act
 Killdeers nest right out there on the ground. Their eggs can be hard to see even though they are completely exposed. If something (like people) get too close, the adult will run squawking in the other direction, pretending to have a broken wing to distract any potential predators. The playground at the park was closed, but as we walked by, someone said, "want to see the Killdeer?" We approached cautiously, and this bird flopped around like she was  injured, just like the book says! We did not approach any closer, not wanting to disturb her. Under"normal" circumstances, they would never have laid eggs on the playground, but since there have been no people for months, I guess they thought it would be a nice place for children.
Killdeer in flight
On the other side of the lake, we must have see 5-6 of them flying overhead, calling ki-dee, ki-dee!
Killdeer - red eyering
 And this one landed close enough to see his red-eyering. Many birds get red eyes when they are old enough to breed, but most eye-rings are white or buff colored.

Mallard Mama and ducklings
There weren't large numbers of Mallards, but these babies were so cute I couldn't resist. I was disappointed (the polite word for it) by the amount of trash left on the sides of this otherwise lovely lake. OK, 'nuff said.
Mississippi Kite
I've seen reports of a pair of Mississippi Kites at Veteran's Park in Lexington, so we headed there next. I've never been there before and didn't know exactly where to look. The open areas were all mowed short, and the wooded areas were full of dirt-bikers. Surprisingly, 3-4 different walkers saw our binoculars and asked if we were looking for that "Mississippi" bird. We looked where they indicated, but didn't see anything. One guy said, "Look for Earl, with a camera and tripod," and right then Earl walked up. He had wonderful photos of the pair already. After we watched one of them soaring for a long time without flapping, he took us where they have been seen working on a nest. No luck again. But it was great to see one flying at least. We used to have a pair in St. Matthews, nearby, but they haven't come back in the last couple of years. Believe it or not, when I got home, I saw an email from a person I know in St. Matthews, and they are seeing kites with nesting materials again!!

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Morning at the Falls of the Ohio

George Rogers Clark site
George Rogers Clark Cabin
 I understand that it's a sign of old age when you start conversations with "I remember when..." although I suppose that's better than "I don't exactly remember..." I volunteered at the Falls of the Ohio State Park from 2003-2009, and enjoyed every minute. I learned the history of this area, the geology, the river, the birds and flowers, and much more. It's always a pleasure to go back down there and see what's going on. Some of the trees on the river bank have washed away, no surprise there.
Great Blue Heron at boat ramp
The river has been high for many months, and it shoots out from the McAlpin Dam with great strength. Thus, none of the wading birds can fish there on the fossil beds. We found herons and egrets circling around looking for a safe place to land.
Black Vultures on power tower
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
I learned to appreciate vultures while standing on the deck at the Falls of the Ohio. Dead fish would wash ashore, and the vultures took care of the mess. The Blacks found a beach ball one day and played soccer with it. They always waited until the sun was up long enough to create thermals before leaving their roosts in the morning. Smart birds.
Brown -tailed UPS bird
Of course, the biggest bird there is the UPS bird. They were on a strange landing path coming upstream from the west before turning to land in Kentucky. Very noisy birds. 
Goose Family
Apparently Canada Geese will adopt other goslings. This family had about 9, but they were two different ages and sizes. Didn't seem to matter as they paraded around at the cabin.
Osprey nest
Ever since 2003, or before maybe, there have been Ospreys nesting on the river. One of the power towers on Shippingport Island hosts cell phone transmission antennas, and the Ospreys always build their nest on it. Since the birds are protected, they stay there, but each fall the phone company tears it down. Doesn't discourage the birds though. I don't know if this is the same pair from so long ago. And I've always wondered why we don't see more of them on the river, since they are supposed to return to the area where they grew up when it's time to breed.
We noticed one groundhog in someone's yard as we walked down the levy (risking our lives from the bikers speeding along). One the way back the whole family was enjoying the sun and clover, with four of them visible!
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
I went for years and years without seeing a cuckoo, and now I've found them three times in about two weeks!
Cedar Waxwing

We heard that the serviceberry bushes at the Falls were full of berries, and drove over to look for Cedar Waxwings, which are berry eaters. They must have eaten all the ripe serviceberries yesterday, and we only saw red (unripe) berries and no birds. However, as we neared the cabin, there is a great big mulberry tree and it was full of both berries and birds, making our day! Somehow, Cedar Waxwings always look they they have been painted with water colors, their different colors blend so smoothly into each other. Then they must dip the end of their tails into a bucket of bright yellow paint.