Bird brained stories!

Monday, May 30, 2005

Salute to the West Salem Class of 2005!

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A new type of graduation display?

Every spring, as I work in my gardens I'll look up high in the trees when I hear a familiar song. I search the tops of the tallest branches for that flash, and it's there. This lasts about four days, then it's back to the usual suspects in my corner lot.

Not this year, however. I have been feeding grape jelly and oranges to my visitors. I've placed cut lengths of yarn in a suet feeder, and they have accepted them, flying up into a tree next door with them. Once it seems that little ones have hatched, I have my mealworm source scoped out. They sing all day long, and I'm happy to have them stay this year.

I never really thought about just how providential the timing was until yesterday, though. You see, yesterday my husband and I became the parents of a high school graduate for the first time. We'd been helped by two grandmas for a couple days, cooking wonderful food and getting all of it ready for family and friends after the ceremony. As we sat on our patio, birds were flitting about and singing, giving everyone yet another reason to enjoy the first really nice day this year. When Cooper's friends were here, making the rounds of all the graduation parties that day, our new guests made sure to sit in the black walnut overhead and sing loudly and clearly. The new graduates squinted up into the trees, searching out the source of the birdsong. One of the girls spotted it first, and said, "Oh look Cooper, you have music just for our graduation!"

True enough. The school colors are black and orange, and my welcome yard birds are a pair of Baltimore Orioles. What a wonderful decoration for the Class of 2005. Party America couldn't have done any better than this!

Sunday, May 22, 2005

A new family in town?

For over a week, I have heard Baltimore Orioles singing nearly non-stop in my yard. One evening, I watched two males, who appeared not to be fighting, carrying nesting material around. I also have seen at least one female. Hmm. Most years, I'll hear one singing briefly for a day or two from the tops of the trees, then they disappear, reappearing when the trumpet vine is in bloom to pierce the blossom and sip nectar. This new pattern was hopeful. We have a pair of nesting cardinals every year. Mourning doves. Robins. Sparrows and finches, the occasional blue jay. Those grackles. This would be such a welcome new neighbor, with the brilliant flash of orange as it flies around the yard.

I placed my oriole feeder out with grape jelly and orange slices. They've been there, I've seen them. I cut up a bunch of yarn into short lengths and stuffed it into a suet feeder. I sat back and listened. And watched.

This morning, when I got my coffee and looked out the window at my feeders, I was thrilled to see a female Oriole pulling out a length of yarn from the suet feeder. I watched her work at it, then fly up into our large flowering crab nearby. I don't know if that's where the construction is taking place, or if it was a stopping point along the way to the building site. I do know I'm very glad today is a day to work in my gardens, and I'll be watching to see what develops! If indeed they are nesting in my yard, my research has suggested that once the little ones hatch, they prefer mealworms to the sugars. Anyone know where I can buy gourmet style mealworms?

Friday, May 20, 2005

Early morning visitor

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Birding in the fast lane

Life gets hectic at the worst times for birders. We're in the midst of our waves of neotropical migrants passing through the Mississippi Flyway, and I should be out there looking in every nook and cranny to catch them all before they're gone, right? Only it just isn't working out that way. Parent conferences, faculty meetings and appointments for my kids after school. Soccer games and organizational meetings on the weekend, not to mention church. A high school senior graduating in a week and all that goes with that. An audition for a storytelling festival last night. What's a girl to do?

Look up in the trees in her own backyard. Beat in the "ugly" bushes a neighbor was caught ripping out last summer. They are there. Perhaps the birds aren't landing in my yard in the numbers they do thirteen miles west near the river. That's okay. I don't have that much time before heading off to shape little minds for three more weeks before summer vacation. Looking up, I've found warblers and flycatchers flitting in the trees. Crawling around tonight, I'm pretty sure that was a Connecticut Warbler in those ugly bushes, which have also hosted American Redstarts, a Common Yellowthroat and the Baltimore Orioles who continue to sing non-stop throughout the yard. Tonight I spotted a few more Cedar Waxwings high in the black walnut, but the gold star came this morning, in the form of a Yellow Warbler, foraging in the black walnut over my patio, just above my head when I stood on my raised deck. Though he looks a bit ruffled--who wouldn't after a red-eye flight?--he cuts quite a dashing figure, with his striped vest over the yellow. I'm glad I've learned to slow down in the mornings, look up and wait. The wait usually pays off. Try it and see for yourself!

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Migration fallouts

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Consolation prizes!

Though I missed some incredible shots this morning due to my inability to think clearly at 5:30am, some of the migrants found their way right to my backyard tonight. There are at least two male Orioles and one female, and the singing has been constant. I've never seen Redstarts before, and there were many hanging out in the shrubs, along with a somewhat more photographically elusive Common Yellowthroat. Some sort of Empidonax, a big one is the best I can guess. With, as birders are wont to say, the "usual suspects."

All was not lost after all, pixel wise.

I experienced something this morning I don't recall experiencing in almost 11 years. Eleven years ago, I was in Kenya, on the Buffalo Springs Reserve trapped in our LandRover between two mother elephants and their babies. Two pairs, each not more than 10 feet from either side of the jeep. Moving very slowly, watching as the curious babies' ears would quiver and trunks extend, we were told "No photographs." It was nervewracking enough, and the guide didn't want to add to the stress of the elephants any more than this foreign vehicle full of Americans had already stressed them. One of those moments seared into my memory, with nary a photo to show for it.

My experience this morning involved somewhat smaller, though no less threatening, parents---two pairs of Canada geese, one with four goslings and one with a whopping total of nine. One family on one side of the marsh trail, the other just across. There were many of us out for our spring bird walk, but most had moved on ahead to a shady area filled with warbler fallout. We'd spotted the geese heading for the banks and held back, wanting to watch the little ones. Up they came, to sighs of "Aw, aren't they cute?" They stayed. They stayed some more. They browsed in the grass, the little ones standing on webbed tippytoe to reach the seedy tops, flapping their tiny wings. The two families were no more than 10 feet from where we stood. Step any closer, they extended their necks and hissed. The morning light came streaming across, creating a wonderful, close family scene.

Too bad my camera battery was dead!

Of course it was dead. I was seeing all kinds of close and cooperative birds this morning. Common Yellowthroats, five feet in front of me, singing away. American Redstarts, though if truth be told, they were pretty flighty this morning. Swainson's Thrush, my catch for the day, all over the place. A lovely little Song Sparrow, right in front of me, filling up the frame. Best of all--a couple of quick but clear looks at a Virginia Rail, a bird we'd been hearing all morning but unable to call out.

Having a dead battery was disappointing under the circumstances, but I could hardly complain about the birding today. I was loaned a really nice set of binocs by one of the regulars on the bird walks, John, and what a nice optic. He'd followed this pair on ebay and was able to get it for about 1/4 of retail. I've been wanting to invest in some decent binoculars to replace these frustrating cheap ones we have, and I appreciated being able to try some different ones out. It's nice to look, focus quickly, and have the image stable. There is a tinge of regret that the last bird walk for the season is Thursday, as I won't be seeing all these knowledgeable people and getting such great education as a birder. I've been noticing something interesting about the avid birders I meet, either in person or on bird lists. It seems that birders are pretty funny people. Not the proverbial "funny weird," but "funny ha-ha." I suppose a sense of humor is an ingredient needed to have fun when you're out searching for warblers in a driving wind and rain. Still, in my opinion, a sense of humor is useful for almost anything one chooses to do, and there are plenty of people lacking one. I just haven't been finding that to be the case with birders. We can gently chide one another when what initially appears to be a great catch is nothing more than a robin. We can make all kinds of esoteric jokes about bird behavior that are hysterically funny to us, and Greek to anyone else. That's what makes them so fun! If you've any doubt about the sense of humor of birders, go read Sharon Stiteler's Field Guide to Bird Authors on her blog linked here.

I'm guessing that this tinge of regret is a sign that I should act on something I've been thinking of doing for a long time, and join the local Audubon chapter, the Coulee Audubon Club. As I type this, a pair of orioles have been holding forth all morning in my yard, and continue to do so--maybe a cosmic sign that my choice is the right one?

Birds spotted by me--there were about 30 of us, so I know there were lots more seen--

Yellow Warbler Palm Warbler Common Yellowthroat Northern Waterthrush
American Redstart Gray Catbird
Northern Oriole Red Winged Blackbird Yellow Headed Blackbird
American Robin Swainson's Thrush
Spotted Sandpiper Virginia Rail Great Blue Heron American Coot Pied Billed Grebe
Blue Winged Teal Common Mallard Canada Goose
Black Tern Tree Swallow Northern Rough Winged Swallow Eastern Kingbird
Least Flycatcher Chimney Swift American Goldfinch
Northern Cardinal Red-eyed Vireo Warbling Vireo
House Wren Song Sparrow Hairy Woodpecker Red Bellied Woodpecker

Saturday, May 14, 2005

"Okay" photo--Bald Eagle Nest

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Bird in groups, photograph alone

This weekend is the annual Mississippi Flyway Birding Festival. Other commitments made it impossible for me to participate in the seminars and social events, but I did get up early to meet about 30 birders gathered at the entrance to the Trempealeau Wildlife Refuge for an "intermediate/advanced" trip. The last time I'd been here, I was all alone, on cross country skis, and the basic shape of the land was the same, but it looked very different.

Greeting us at our gathering spot was a nice view of an Orchard Oriole. As we moved to split up into two groups, right across from the parking lot we could hear the hiccup of a Henslow's Sparrow. After searching in the sand prairie grasses, he was spotted and scoped, and everyone enjoyed a good look at him throwing his head back, mouth open wide in that wheezy little song of his. Nearby was a Grasshopper Sparrow. Sparrow heaven.

We moved a little further down the road to find the Clay Colored Sparrows, and though we could hear them seemingly at our feet, they were hard to spot. It would be at least two more stops before we got a positive id on one.

Though the morning started out with that beautiful light, it wasn't long before dark skies and an impending cold front threatened to move in. We pressed on. Bald eagles sitting on nest were clearly visible, though it didn't appear that there were any young ones there.

One of the members of our group wanted to see a Red-Headed Woodpecker, which would be a lifer for her. In fact, she had coffee and rhubarb cake in her car for celebration if she saw it, so our eyes were peeled. Anytime someone spotted a woodpecker, all eyes would search. There was one that might have been, and the woman who spotted it didn't want to commit. Laughing, I said, "Just say it's a RedHead!" with everyone laughing in agreement.

As we worked our way through the varied habitat of the refuge, various birds were spotted and tallied. American White Pelicans soared overhead, looking like small bomber squadrons of brilliant white reflecting in the sun. All types of swallow native to our area could be seen at once soaring over the river, since it was too cold to find insects anywhere else! A member of our group spotted a Western Grebe from the refuge observation deck, and scoping it out for all to see, we all had a new life bird, this one far out of its normal range. That catch earned Jim, the spotter, a giant sized Snickers bar for best bird!

I remember reading once, perhaps in the bird photography book by Arthur Morris, that bird spotting is best done in groups, with many pairs of eyes searching for the greatest number of birds, but that photography is a solo sport. I must agree with this observation. This morning, there were any number of times, were I out there alone, I'd have been stopping and waiting out birds, like the Eastern Meadowlark perched high in the grass with the morning sun. Since I was traveling in a group, I couldn't do that. Hence, no nice photos today. Still, I had three new life birds, the Henslow's Sparrow, the Orchard Oriole and the Western Grebe. This was my morning to be sociable and learn from all of the collective experience of those in my group. Next time, armed with such knowledge, I can go it alone with camera in hand, crawling through the grass or thickets. Birding is a wonderful activity in this way, allowing a time and place for both my extrovert self and introvert self to play.

Birds seen in this four hour hike included--

Grasshopper Sparrow Clay Colored Sparrow Henslow's Sparrow Field Sparrow Song Sparrow
Yellow Rumped Warbler Palm Warbler Yellow Warbler Northern Waterthrush
Orchard Oriole Northern Oriole Eastern Meadowlark
Brown Headed Cowbird Red Winged Blackbird
Yellow bellied Sapsucker Downy Woodpecker White Breasted Nuthatch
Bank Swallow Cliff Swallow Barn Swallow Tree Swallow Northern Rough-Winged Swallow
Chimney Swift Belted Kingfisher
Bald Eagle Red Tailed Hawk
Black Tern Forsters Tern Western Grebe Common Loon Cormorant Great Blue Heron
Sandhill Crane American White Pelican
Goldfinch Blue Grey Gnatcatcher Warbling Vireo Great Crested Flycatcher
Brown Thrasher American Robin Eastern Kingbird Phoebe
Yellow Billed Cuckoo (heard only) Catbird Eastern Bluebird

Friday, May 13, 2005

Here's looking at you! Warbling Vireo

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Lucky surprises

Monday was my day off work. I had a list of errands I needed to run, and set up my day to follow a route that would get them all done and make best use of my gasoline dollars. Midway through my route, my plan was to spend some time birding in the Myrick Marsh again. The weather was that typical pattern for Wisconsin in May; overcast, with occasional sun peeking through, followed by mist, then rain, then a bit of sun before a downpour. Great weather for birds!

The migration had been moving along again, though the fallouts people been expecting had not really happened. I think maybe the Northern Oriole fallout happened, as they were literally all over the marsh, more numerous than even the ever present state bird, the American Robin. I'm used to seeing one, maybe two of them at a time, not all over the place! Surprise Number One.

As I was watching all this flashy orange, a college student heading back to campus must have noticed my heavy-hitting camera gear, because he pointed me to a family of Canada Geese. Indeed, two adults with four little fuzzy yellow goslings were paddling around near the observation deck. Surprise Number Two.

I continued on, and enjoyed a large number of Rose Breasted Grosbeaks, Yellow and Yellow Rumped Warblers, Blue Winged Teal pairs, laughing but hidden Soras, my first Gray Catbirds, and what's this? A Wilson's Snipe? Lurking in the still water, but still visible? Surprise Number Three.

Coming around the southern edge of the marsh, something large and white was seen. Three Trumpeter Swans, two with bands. Surprise Number Four. Just in front of me, and not at all spooked,was a Great Blue Heron in full breeding plumage, very willing to pose for my camera. Surprise Number Five.

I noticed as I headed back to the car, right at the bottom of the embankment, a flash of feathers. A Mallard hen hopped into the water, followed by twelve fuzzy ducklings, entertaining me with their antics as they followed Mama Duck in a nice, tight row, every so often one straggler exploring the weeds for just a moment. Surprise Number Six.

My last surprise for the day came later, after I sat down at the computer and downloaded the images I'd taken. Many of the shots I take are simply to aid in identification. I know they aren't worth keeping, even if I Photoshop the heck out of them. But there was one--a little active bird, not showy, but with the unmistakable song that croons, "when I see you I will squeeze you and I'll squeeze you till you squirt!" of a Warbling Vireo. Though he wasn't flashy, the photo, with just a bit of cropping and nothing more, was delightful--the bird looking right at me, framed nicely in the willow in a perky little sideways pose. That little bird is my current screensaver both at home and at work now. What was simply an ID shot might be one of the best avian photos I've taken yet.

It's a grand thing that someone my age can still be surprised this many times in one day. Birding can do that for a person! Oh, by the way. I never did finish my errand list. I spent the entire afternoon in the marsh, rain, sun and drizzle all. Birding can do that to a person, too.

Monday, May 09, 2005

A confessional tale, with a bit of prophecy

There are moments when events of note bring back events from one's own life that are best forgotten, perhaps even repressed. I had such a moment a couple weeks ago. The event of note that retrieved repressed memories was the incredible news that the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, written off as extinct since 1944, is alive and well in the Big Woods of Arkansas. Being an avid birder, this was huge news. HUGE. As I read posts on my bird lists throughout the day, following links to sites and accessing the short video segment taken by ornithologists with the Cornell Lab, that long-repressed memory was bubbling to the surface. I tried to push it back, but the more I read about the Ivory-Bill and its rediscovery, the more that little nagging memory came forth.

What in the world could be repressed that had any connection with an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker?!? More than one might expect. The news brought forth the memory of the one time I helped a friend cheat in high school.

I realize this is beginning to move into the arena of the weird, but you have to understand the setting. When I was a student at Columbia Heights Senior High School in the very early 70s, there was one English teacher for the sophomores who was legendary. Every school is required to have at least one such teacher, and I only hope that as a teacher now myself, I don't become that teacher! We'll call the teacher Mrs. H. Mrs. H was strict. A tough grader. A strong believer in the doctrine of sentence diagramming as medicine against poor expression. Some older kids had kept folders of every sentence ever diagrammed in her class, with corrections, and these were made available on the cheaters' black market. No one ever got an A from Mrs. H; the best for which anyone might hope would be an A-. On a daily assignment.

That's not much of a legend, you may be saying to yourself, and you'd be right. There's more. True or not, word had it that Mrs. H had a strong belief in reincarnation. Of her husband. Who came back as various pets! Prior to my time there, her husband had supposedly been a dog, who was a faithful companion at her table, dining on nothing but prime cuts of meat. How anyone actually knew this little detail is unimportant to the building of a legend. This is the stuff of which legends are made! When the dog died, her husband came back as a goldfish, one that sat on her desk at school and was fed the good stuff, not those dried up flakes. This was during my era, and yes, there really was a goldfish on her desk.

My best friend Peggy had Mrs. H for her teacher. I had a different teacher. I can't even remember the name of my teacher, but Mrs. H I remember. See, legendary! Peggy was not strong with paper and pen, whereas I enjoyed writing. Peggy was struggling with that class as a result. She came to me for help. She had to write a fictional piece. I don't remember the exact details of the assignment, but I do remember what I wrote. I'd completely forgotten, until the news of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker was shared last week.

Another bit of the Legend of Mrs H involved her activism for animal rights. The story is somewhat convoluted, but somehow, she went to jail for some sort of peaceful assembly on behalf of animals---wearing her mink coat. Hmmm. Still, this bit of information would be helpful in crafting just the right story for my friend to capture her heart and boost Peggy's grade.

Even in my youth, birds had held a fascination for me. At one point, I'd read any books in our small public library about birds, and was intrigued by the story of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.
I wrote a riveting piece about a man traveling the backwaters in his canoe. I'm sure there was some drama explaining his travels alone, I've still repressed that part. However, the climax of my story came when the man pushed through some thick growth to capture a glimpse of a living ghost--the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, carrying grubs to his mate with their nestlings!

Mrs. H loved my story. Loved it. Gave it an unprecendented A+, with the comment "Brought a tear to my eye to think of this magnificent bird being found once more." Peggy passed English 10. Of course, inflated teen egos liked to think I'd set history, getting the first-ever A+ from Mrs. H.

Except for the overly maudlin bit about bringing grubs to a mate on her nest, my story came true, as revealed last week. The Ivory Billed Woodpecker lives on, found by a man canoeing alone in the backwaters. My sense of guilt over my one-time academic cheating escapade has been dredged up anew. I'm glad it came forth over such wonderful news. It is amazing to me to think that along with memories of youthful crimes, a bird like this can go on undiscovered for nearly 60 years.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

A new backyard visitor among the weeds

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New life on Mother's Day

On this Mother's Day, what could be more appropriate than discovering the first brood of baby birds in one's yard? Yes, as I enjoyed the warm weather at long last, digging and readying my patio-side butterfly garden for a new season, I listened to the sounds of the birds in the yard, practicing my ever-increasing birding-by-ear skills. Goldfinches. Robins. Chipping sparrows.
The always-present cardinal pair. A Baltimore Oriole, the first of the season!

And what's this I hear? The plaintive squeaks, unmistakable as the cries of a nest of baby birds in the evergreens. The first nest of babies of the season! What could they be? I took a break in my digging to watch and discover. I didn't wait long...along came...grackles!

Grackles? How ordinary and unexciting is that? They chase the songbirds from the feeders. They strut about the yard making racket. Still, there is hope. I discovered a pair of White-Throated Sparrows hanging about as well. Though I haven't spotted them since yesterday, they have been heard, and would be a welcome addition to my list of summer visitors here in my small town corner lot.

Happy Mother's Day! Grackles or something more exotic, the arrival of a new generation of flying friends is a sign that the world will go on, in spite of our efforts to stop it.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Chippy sings!

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Solitary hermit thrush

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Thursday, May 05, 2005

Finally...the snowbirds return!

There is a bit of mystery inherent in serious birding. Things the birding world knows intimately are unknown to the general public. The general public might note the arrival of robins, and be done with it. Serious birders can read reports sent to online birding communities that interpret radar readings signaling migration and learn that a significant "fallout" of warblers and other migrants will be seen. Such was my hope, as were the hopes of others, when I set off early to join the morning spring bird walks sponsored by the Hixon Forest Nature Center.

Arriving right at 6:30am, about a dozen of us set off down the edge trail, but not before we'd heard, then glimpsed, a Rose Breasted Grosbeak. Red bellied woodpeckers called everywhere, but it seemed otherwise quiet. Then, high in the oaks, we spotted them--warblers! The consensus was Palm Warblers, given the yellow color and rusty cap, along with a tail bobbing habit. Already I was learning much from these birders.

Continuing along, we'd see the occasional robin, listen to the constant chatter of the goldfinches, and hear the call and drumming of the Downy Woodpeckers inhabiting the forest. A White Breasted Nuthatch was spotted, and we all gazed at the perky little bird, laughing that such a specimen was to be our highlight this morning! Not much further down the trail, however, a hermit thrush was spotted on the trail. He didn't sing for us, but was very accomodating in allowing a good view of him and for me, a nice photograph. Later on, an all too common Chipping Sparrow made up for his lack of uniqueness by posing nicely and singing for the camera.

It was such a nice morning, the first warm one in weeks, that having to leave and head to work seemed almost criminal, but leave I did. I was rewarded on my way out by a good view of a Tufted Titmouse whose call confused us by sounding a bit like a demented chickadee.

Getting up when it's still dark seems a bit like a crime against nature, but if one is willing to commit that "crime," the rewards are great.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

There's no place like home

With the unseasonably cold weather, birding in southwestern Wisconsin has been an extreme sport of late. I've walked across a frosty field to see Greater Prairie Chickens; I fought strange snow squalls in torrents to find my first warbler of the season, a yellow-rumped, at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. Who would have thought polypropylene underwear and a winter coat would be necessary gear for birding in May?

Yet, sometimes one need not wander that far afield. As I finished filling my feeders tonight, I noticed a flock of about 40-50 birds high in the newly budding black walnut tree. With my great big new 80-400mm lens in hand, I walked around to the light side and saw that they were not a mess of cowbirds after all, but Cedar Waxwings, their feathers beautiful in that golden late evening sun. They would split their time between the flowering crab, very picturesque, and the nearly bare black walnut. Enjoying their high pitched chatter, I watched them defy a scolding Blue Jay by remaining steadfast, forcing Mr. Jay across the street.

Along with the enjoyment of an unusual yard bird, probably just passing through, it struck me; they're just passing through! Maybe my waxwing visitors are a signal the stalled migration is beginning again, along with our stalled spring.

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