Bird brained stories!

Monday, December 26, 2005

The Bird in the Winter

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Winter, as I've said many times, has wonderful advantages of visibility that a birder just doesn't have in the full green leaf of summer. Along with that clear view, another problem is obvious....not as many birds! Apparently, warblers and such are not much for skiing and they leave. They could have stayed this year. With the unseasonably warm weather, the wonderful snow cover is quickly receding, leaving us with the sorry landscape usually seen in March, that cruel month. It has made me almost crabby, visions of extended days of excellent cross country skiing during my break dashed by a warm southerly weather pattern. If I wanted warm winters, I'd live in Texas, not Wisconsin!

Still, I've gone out sans skis a couple times recently, last week in search of the Northern Shrike. He has been reliable along my much-loved Rails to Trails bike trail, and I caught only a quick glimpse of him. The fine fellow pictured here is one I captured late last winter, in that mostly cruel month of March. Though my glimpse was quick, I had much longer looks at two Bald Eagles soaring over the open marshland beyond the trail. Beyond that, I could see the edge of the local mall parking lot, the day before Christmas Eve. As I silently watched those eagles soar for no other reason than the fact that they can, I paused to think of all the last-minute shoppers just beyond...with no idea of this gift that was there for the taking.

Today, my husband and I headed off to the county park where I had my last owl encounter. It was eerily silent today. Even just before dusk, there were only a scant few Chickadees chittering about, and they were making their soft chirping calls, rather than their usual brassy ones. A Belted Kingfisher was seen through the trees, and a couple Downies and White Breasted Nuthatches entertained us, but for the most part, the birds were strangely absent. Trying to call my friend the owl, I had one very distant response. My husband heard it too, but calling yet again, we heard nothing more. Had I been alone, I could have stood and waited for it to find me if it chose, but I was not alone. Though the birding was scarce, time in the woods was abundant, and the sunset over the Mississippi spectacular, so spectacular that despite having a camera in hand, we instead drank in its splendor.

Tomorrow is another day. Perhaps it will be the day I actually get out of bed and try to do some owling. Perhaps not.

Now for this commercial interruption....send along your nominations for "I and the Bird #14,"already being set in type. Make sure you get the chance to be in this edition which, though it will not be the "Weekly World News," should be lots of fun, in a midwestern sort of way! The deadline is January 3 and they can be sent to Mike at 10000 Birds or me.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Greetings of the season

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My vacation started today, one of the many perks of a teaching career. Unfortunately, one of the many perks of living in this part of the country, the changeable weather, was today not seen as such. Instead of sleeping in, I planned to be out in the early morning hours of our lengthening day, trying to call in Eastern Screech Owls that others had been successful calling last weekend. When my clock told me it was time to get up, the weather report was saying the roads were slick with ice, and the few schools scheduled to have classes today were calling it quits. I decided slipping and sliding the back roads, even to see a cute little owl, just wasn't in my best interest. Tomorrow promises to be better, though the warming trend has dashed my immediate hopes of longer and more frequent cross country ski outings. It's nothing but wet sloppy slush, quickly dropping in its depth.

However, even without leaving the house--yet---my day has not been completely uneventful from a birding standpoint. This morning, in addition to battling the squirrels, I attempted to retrieve one of my suet feeders from the neighbor's Golden Retriever! Tigger slipped the leash, batted down the cage and unlike the squirrels, who scram momentarily at my approach, Tigger picked it up and trotted off into his yard. It would seem he has also stashed it somewhere, because we can't find it. On which list would this event be placed?

Listing----that boon/bane of the birder's life. I just today finished reading Kenn Kaufman's Kingbird Highway. Aside from telling a great story, I could relate to his experience, having been 19 at the same time in history, looking grungy myself, as was the style, and very occasionally thumbing for a ride when bike or beater failed me. It is the final chapter of his story that rings most clearly, though. He realized as his Big Year was drawing to a close that the list simply helped him see birds, and though his feat was impressive, he really didn't know the birds he was seeing. Older and wiser now, I realize that expensive travel to list birds is out of the question, both financially and ethically, as the use of fossil fuels is counterproductive to maintaining a healthy habitat for the birds, animals and ultimately, humans. My list is pathetic, anyway. As this year draws to a close, I resolve that though I will list out birds I see---as a birder, it's a compulsion!---my goal is not to see them all, but to see them well. This fits with my usual manner of birding, which is to watch, stop and enjoy in the midst of other activities; biking, hiking, canoeing or skiing, all done with binoculars within reach, and many times, the camera as well.

As you ponder your past year in this big beautiful world of possibilities, may the light of the season shine on you and your loved ones.

And....don't forget to send your nominations for the 14th edition of "I and the Bird" to Mike of 10000 Birds or me.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Over The River to "I and the Bird!"

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Though Cindy Mead of Woodsong drew the unlucky number 13 for her edition of "I and the Bird," she didn't allow that to intimidate her. She takes us all on a caroling party as we go from one blog to the next, reading about Monk Parrots in the Bronx at one hand, then off to experience winter birding at Pheasant Branch Conservatory right here in my home state of Wisconsin, as described by Mike McDowell.

Enjoy the songs of the season, interpreted through the posts of the best bird blogs on the net...then send me your nominations for "I and the Bird #14," due to Mike at 10,000 Birds or me by January 3.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

From the largest........

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Yesterday was our Audubon Club's annual Christmas Bird Count. Feeling more competent, I told the organizer I could fly solo this year, helping to maximize coverage. When I encountered an unknown raptor that I simply could not identify clearly, I was feeling less competent, but all in all, it was still a grand day. Starting very early, I tried for owls. Not very successful, I moved along, thinking I'd make up for that lack in waterfowl, given that my area was both sides of the Mississippi River.

No such luck. Any waterfowl with half a brain has flown for open water. With only a few small open spots, they were far and few between. The Bald Eagles, however, were having huge parties. I counted 25, both adults and younguns, like this one. This one has to be a teenager; look at the calculated sloppiness in plumage and the untucked overall gangly appearance! They gifted me with very close looks and fly bys, allowing me to truly appreciate their size and grandeur. They were the largest of the birds I counted yesterday. the smallest.

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On to other locales, I was assigned to a cemetary in the city, one that has been good in past years for Red Breasted Nuthatches, White Winged Crossbills and Robins. The Robins where there, but in spite of learning the family name of everyone ever buried there, I failed to find the other two. That lack was more than made up when several Brown Creepers delighted me with close looks and a few photos. They were the smallest of the birds I counted this year.

At the group potluck last night, we came up with a total of 53 species observed. I had Belted Kingfishers, seen by only one or two other observers, but none of the birds I saw were ones not on the printed area winter list. No matter. It was still wonderful to take part in this annual citizen science project, and I'm determined to discover the identity of my mystery bird. Best bets so far seem to be a young Merlin...truly a sign of just how magical the world of birds can be.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Conversation with an owl

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A slightly fuzzy looking Barred Owl

Silently flying through the woods, a Barred Owl crossed my path today, setting the stage for what would come later---a moment of connection.

In what seems to be my winter pattern on my treasured "day off," I ran a few errands, then set off on the trails for some silent bliss in the snow; cross country skiing. My skis followed a little loop I've hiked often in Goose Island County Park. We haven't had much new snow, so the trails were not that wonderful deep fluff, but rather a rut akin to those left on the Oregon Trail. No matter. I was all alone, save for the company of the birds. Every so often, I'd stop and listen. Tapping was a common sound, with many woodpeckers at work. The occasional White Breasted Nuthatch helped the Downys, Hairys and Red-Bellies search the trees. If I stopped and listened long enough, I'd hear that comical wacka-wacka call as two met on a tree trunk.

I explored off the main trails, something I seem to do no matter what the season. It's a compulsion for me. I don't know if it's because I fell asleep under a photo poster with that "road less traveled" poem my entire freshman year in college or not, but if there is any small indication of such a "road," it pulls me. This appeared to be perhaps one made by an ice fisherman, sled tracks alongside boots. I followed it to the edge of what I knew to be a backwater. A flash of movement caught my eye right along that edge. Stopping and waiting, I finally was treated to the foraging of a tiny Winter Wren. We enjoyed each other's company for a time, and then I turned around and headed back to my car, to begin the second phase of my winter day off ritual.

Exchanging my ski poles for my binocs and camera, I walked back alongside the ski trail. It was just as I started back that the owl crossed my path, very close in front of me, so close that I was breathless at the encounter. It perched for a moment high in a tree behind me, then, like me, continued on in its journey. I went on to enjoy a large mixed flock of Black-Capped Chickadees, Juncos and Tree Sparrows as they worked some remaining seed heads, jumping into the snow to retrieve any that had fallen. Meandering along the trails, I spotted a Tufted Titmouse. Watching and "pishing," I got good looks at its behavior, as it was joined by two others, poking into the twigs near the treetops.

I'd enjoyed my small feathered friends, but I knew that big one was somewhere about. I'd called Barred Owls in once before, last spring. It was completely still. I hooted---and waited. From far off, I could barely hear a response. I moved forward a bit, calling again, twice. Once more, I heard another distant response. Calling once more, I heard nothing this time, and continued on.

As I was almost back to my car, I decided to head back toward that "road less traveled" I'd skiied a couple hours earlier. As I made my way over fallen trees, something of size and silence passed before me again. I stopped. It always amazes, delights and frustrates me that a bird so large can be so difficult to visualize once alighted. I stepped closer, and it watched me. Not wishing to go too close, I stopped at a point perhaps 50-75 yards away. Looking into the eyes of an owl, you experience an almost mystical connection, one that explains the high regard owls are given in many cultures. I took photos, fighting again with the fogging and focus problems of winter. Then I stepped further back, the owl and I silently appraising each other. After perhaps a half hour like this, the owl decided to move along. It was approaching sundown, and maybe she wanted to head to her hunting grounds for the night. Today I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

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Saturday, December 10, 2005

What do you take for granted?

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This Red-Bellied Woodpecker is a bird I can count on seeing almost anytime I go out birding. They even show up in my small town backyard. A look at the range map suggests that any of you living in the eastern plains states to the east coast can find him, too. The National Geographic Field Guide to Birds says "common in open woodlands, suburbs, parks. Are extending breeding range northward." Any bird that allows me to enjoy it at close range, whether it's a common one like this woodpecker, chickadee or Bald Eagle is a treat. Bald Eagle, you say? Yes, where I live and bird, in the heart of the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife Refuge, Bald Eagles have become a common sight. My commute takes me on county roads through farmland and blufftops. The past two days, a Baldie was perched in a tree overhanging the road. A birder from Minnesota reported on the mnbird list the other day counting "loosely 150" hanging out along the river bluffs at one spot. Birders are not so foolish to say we can take the gift of our Bald Eagles for granted. Most of us in my age group can remember a time when we had never seen a Bald Eagle. Though we don't take them for granted, we do take them as a common sight on our local bird outings. However, there was quite a bit of excitement late last summer in the state when a couple people were seeing Green Violet Eared Hummingbirds at their feeders. If you're reading this from the Hill Country of Texas, you might be thinking, "So?"
Which is my point exactly.

Birders are also naturalists. To enjoy and appreciate what we see, learning about the different species, their behaviors and habitats happens naturally. So intellectually, we know that some birds are common in some places and not others. Still, when I was reading the B and B blog account of a trip to see the Whooping Cranes at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, I was taken aback by the comment Peter made that he also saw Sandhill Cranes for the first time ever. That's another wonderful sight that is very common here starting in spring into late fall. It got me thinking--always a dangerous thing!--about which birds I see so often that I long for something new, that might be a lifer for birders elsewhere. Living in the northern tier of the US, there are some species that I enjoy throughout the winter that those of you in the year-round warmth won't see unless there's some freakish movement of nature. Great Grey Owls, Northern Hawk Owls, Common Redpolls all move into the area from north of the border, treating me on my outings, or sometimes even while cross-country skiing up north, with their presence. The call of the Common Loon is common at the family cabin. In my part of the country, if I keep my eyes tuned for them, I get to see the warblers for a window of about four months, but those four months are when the males are looking like a "sharp-dressed man" and singing opera for the ladies! By the time they hit the beaches, they are wearing their winter couch potato sweats.

All of this makes me wonder....what life birds would you want to see when you travel outside your local area? I have yet to see a California Quail, though I make annual trips to visit friends in Napa Valley. I'd like to see any hummingbirds besides a Ruby Throat, though I was treated to a female Anna's in Napa last spring. Puffins have long been on my must-see list. What birds are on your "must-see" list?

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Amusingly punny--I and the Bird #12--"Canterbirdy Tales!"

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David Ringer is the host for the latest edition of "I and the Bird," the best bird blog carnival on the net. He sets the standard for creativity high, as his bard tells the tales of whooping crane encounters in Texas, while others in the northern reaches tell of cardinals in the snow, along with many other tales of travelers both avian and human. Cindy Mead of Woodsong will be hosting the next edition of I and the Bird, with some birdbrain storyteller or other hosting the one after that.

If you do nothing else today, be sure to check out Canterbirdy Tales.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Joy and frustration while birding in the winter...and NEW binoculars!

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A belted kingfisher...relative of the kookaburra, laughing over the river. He taunted me continuously as I hiked the marsh wetlands. I'd been out for a joyous first ski through the woods in Hixon Forest, accompanied by Downy, Hairy and Red-Bellied Woodpeckers, along with the expected Chickadees, Juncos and White-Breasted Nuthatches for companionship as I enjoyed the solitude on the trails. I was tired and sore, as I knew I would be, but the day was too perfect to head back home to the confines of my closed up house. I hadn't been out birding in almost two weeks, and I had brand new binoculars.

My husband and I went out for dinner a few days after I received the acceptance notice from Cornell. I'd been debating the purchase of an iPod, mainly for birding, and the only place around that still had the iPod mini I wanted was the Evil Empire, known outside our household as Walmart. In general, I don't like to shop big box and chain stores anyway, but that's another topic. To help me get over my mixed feelings, my husband pointed out that showing up at the Cache House in Arkansas with that 20-something binocular from Kmart would not be a good thing. I hate to admit it, but my non-birding husband was right!

So, I went shopping. I probably should have waited until I could get someplace like Eagle Optics in Middleton to really comparison shop, but I wanted instant gratification. Also, I was concerned that the non-birding husband might change his opinion before I could drop the bucks on a decent choice. I visited the local Wild Birds Unlimited store, where the woman who helped me treated me like some goddess because of the Ivory Billed thing, and even gave me a bag of free birdseed! I like that! Bird Goddess! Now, if I could just get a deep discount on the seed I buy. I chose the Audubon 10 x 42 Equinox binocular.

My trek into the frozen wetland was my first real field experience with them. Wow! Viva la difference! I still need to work out the fine tuning for my eyes, but it's minor. The fact that I even need to fine tune binoculars is a novel one. I was amazed by the clarity I obtained and the magnification power.

I was not, however, finding many birds. Well, I kind of expected that. I kept reflecting on the complete transformation. In spring and summer, the place teems with waterfowl, waders, blackbirds and any number of perching birds, but today I was seeing very little. Still, what I was seeing was clear. Puffed up Mourning Doves not inclined to flush. Ever present Cardinals and Chickadees. In the bottomland off the bridge away from the trails, I had great looks at Brown Creepers. The Brown Creeper is to my mind an amazing practicioner of camoflauge. Their high thin squeaks can be heard, and localized, but until a piece of "bark" begins to move up the tree trunk, they are invisible.

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Satisfied with a long, slowly paced period of watching these guys, along with fun glimpses of a mink playing in the snow across the river, I began to follow the Belted Kingfisher whose rattles enticed me, the leafless forest allowing much better looks through the glass than in summer.

He'd flown downriver a bit, on the other side of the bridge, and I walked toward the riverbank, hoping for a closer approach. I watched his patterns, his preferred perches. I waited. I crouched in the snow. I waited some more. I could hear his laugh-like call just around the bend. I nearly fell over when a deer, probably drinking below the bank, came up and then startled, and ran along the bank away from me, toward the location of the kingfisher's call.

Along with the chill and cold, the very advantage of winter birding, the open habitat, became my disadvantage as well. Not easy to hide. As I took my various shots, the cold combined with my gloves created new equipment challenges. The autofocus was shaky in the cold, and my gloved hands kept moving the exposure dial. Manual focus was tough, as I fought the fogging in my viewfinder.

So, maybe my photos are substandard. Not maybe, they are substandard. Very much so. They still get a place in the blog, as reminder of both the joys and the frustrations ahead in this magical season we call "winter."

Postscript: In the interest of avoiding the appearance of endorsement or exclusion of other retailers, I wanted to point out that and Eagle Optics are excellent online sources for those wishing to shop online. Both companies have birding experts on board to advise and recommend; has Laura Erickson's expertise, while Eagle Optics can count on Mike McDowell and Sharon Stiteler, better known as "Birdchick," to help befuddled birders in making the choice that's best for them. Both companies provide excellent educational resources to help the customer research and make the best choice. Both companies lend their support at birding festivals, as well as partnering in conservation efforts. I learned that Wild Birds Unlimited gets their in-store stock from Eagle Optics. I do think that all three birding optics experts would agree that trying out different binoculars is the best way to make one's choice. Given my need for instant gratification, that left me shopping the Wild Birds store. I can be patient only so long, and I guess I save that patience for my family, my students and my birding!

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