Bird brained stories!

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Savannah sings!

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Life lists, singing birds and photography

Though I've been a casual birder most of my life, it's only been in the past few years I've crossed over to the dark side, as mentioned in an earlier post. Part of what drew me over is an interest in avian photography. Basically, I enjoy hunting birds with my camera. I'm not particularly adept at this. My equipment set up doesn't meet the high standards needed for excellent bird photography, though the addition of a Sigma 80-400mm lens with optical stabilization should bump me up a notch in that regard. I also don't always have the patience to go out solely in pursuit of bird photos, either. Oh, I'll sit and wait for a long period of time if I spot a bird I want to shoot, but I do this in the context of hiking, biking and sometimes cross country skiing or canoeing. As a result, I'm more likely to capture an environmental shot, showing the bird in the context of its habitat, rather than close portrait studies. It's easier to do that type of photography and be somewhat satisfied with the results when one doesn't have several thousand dollars to spare on camera gear.

Still, hunting birds with one's camera lens requires a careful study of bird behavior and at a more basic level, bird identification. Identification helps, because knowing the bird gives a better understanding of what behaviors might be anticipated, and hopefully captured, on film or in pixels. Realizing this helped to nudge my basic love of birds to that next level.

Which brings me to my next area of concern--those lists we keep. Now, listing is a new behavior for me. My husband gave me a very nice birding record book that allows me to make notes on all my birding trips and keep track of what I've seen. As I read through various bird listservs, I see all kinds of lists. "Life list." "State list." "Year list." "Yard bird list." No matter what kind of list I say I have, I can tell you one thing---I'm way behind the pros for this year. On the mnbird list, someone commented the other day that he's at 160 for the state so far this year, and usually has hit 200 by now. Two hundred? I just tallied up mine for the tri-state region--living where I do, I'm one of those "birders without borders"--and I have a whopping 65 so far. That's counting the birds like starlings, rock doves and house sparrows, introduced species most birders don't even count!

Whatever shall I do? I guess I'm no serious threat to the likes of Sandy Komito, whose Big Year record will probably never be broken for North American birds, but I'm betting there are middle school kids with a better count than mine! I'm not too worried, however. I need only to remind myself why I got this serious in the first place, and celebrate the greater variety of bird species I've photographed. After leaving the prairie chicken blind the other morning, I spotted some of the singing Savannah sparrows on the seedheads left from last fall. Doing my best with what I had available--the 80-400mm had not arrived at this point in time--I fired off a few shots.

As I worked in Photoshop this afternoon to choose the best of these, I thought I'd have to do some seedhead removal, as there appeared to be a bit of reddish stuff right in his face. Imagine my delight when I tapped the mouse to activate the little magnifying glass and discovered it was not a seedhead, but the inside of this little guy's throat, wide open in song. One of my photographic goals for the year has been met! I captured a bird in full song.

Now of course, my next goal will be to capture him with full sharpness. Still, this is a nice start, don't you think?

Friday, April 29, 2005

Don't be crossing me!

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Rising early--3am--on Thursday morning, my anticipation grew. I'd rented blind space at the Buena Vista Grassland south of Stevens Point to take part in the Greater Prairie Chicken census. I had, as my husband so eloquently put it, paid a small fee to have a pornographic birding experience. No matter. I preferred to think of it as observing avian behavior.

Arriving just at 4am, I met the others who'd be heading out to the blinds with me. A couple from Minnesota, she a retired speech pathologist, and a photographer/writer for Wisconsin Natural Resources with his wife. He would be taking photos to illustrate an article on looking at prairie chickens for the magazine. And here I thought I wouldn't need to bother with makeup and hair so early!

On a still night with a near full moon, we were led by our guide, Katie Brashear, to a trail that meandered about a half mile to the booming grounds. With flashlights, we trekked out, hearing the occasional "Peent!" of an American Woodcock off in the grass. Reaching the blind, we crouched into position, and closed the door. We waited. The sky began to lighten, though it was still dark. Gradually, the sun, which was behind our blind, began to creep above the horizon. Just at first light, around 5:15am, several grouse-like bird silhouettes flew in from the right. The show was about to begin.

They sized each other up for a few moments. A couple late comers flew in. The music began. All around us could be heard the strange "blowing into a Coke bottle sounds," with cackles and whoops as two male prairie chickens would confront each other to defend their territory. They would blow up the orange air sacs, head down, and race, chicken-like, at any who entered their territory. Sometimes two would face each other, then leap up in the air. The back-up orchestra was bugling sandhill cranes, Eastern meadowlarks, and singing Savannah sparrows. Bliss!

After about 15-20 minutes of this cacophony, the birds froze. What spooked them? We couldn't tell. Perhaps they were hoping for the arrival of the females. After about 15 minutes, the bird closest to our blind tentatively began clucking, and slowly, the others began to respond. Act II commenced.

The birds kept up with their bachelor party antics until 6:30am, at which time they flushed into the grasslands to our right. Heading out to our vehicles, I dawdled along the way, trying to photograph the Savannah sparrows and locate the meadowlarks. I watched as a pair of sandhills arose from the grass and took wing. Reaching my van at last, a Red-Winged blackbird perched on a power line, the moon nearby. I was able to take one photograph before he flew off, not perfect. Still, it was pure magic for the end of my morning on the grasslands.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Crossing over to the dark side

It starts innocently enough. Someone gives you a birdfeeder. You hang it up. Pretty soon, you realize you need more feeders to keep all your avian visitors from pecking each others' eyes out at the black oil sunflower station. Before you know it, you start keeping a list of birds that visit your yard.

Yes, innocent, even benevolent beginnings. Watch out. Next thing you know, you'll find yourself making a reservation for a blind viewing of prairie chickens strutting their stuff. At 4am. Two hours from home.

Just what happened that led this city girl from feeding cardinals to scheduling the rare opportunity to become a prairie chicken voyeur? And even paying for that voyeuristic experience?

Simple. You feed birds, you start to discover how cool they really are. Your interest grows, you read some books, you start taking photographs. You sign onto birding lists, join birding clubs.
Maybe do a Christmas bird count or two. And discover that people with this kind of interest in birds are pretty cool, too. That's how it happened for me, though in all actuality, I have had a keen interest in all things feathered since a young age. At one point, around age 10, I entertained thoughts of becoming an ornithologist. Most people had no clue what an ornithologist was, and nodded indulgently when I shared that dream. I didn't follow that path, but becoming a serious birder has allowed me to pretend I did, at least when I do counts, go out in the field or, like I'll do in about a week, get up at the unreal hour of 3am to go sit in a blind and watch procreating prairie chickens.

I'm told by those who've gone before me it's an "experience not to be missed." Now of course, these are the cool people telling me this. I know they're the cool people, because they all are birders.

Buena Vista Prairie Chicken Habitat

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Great weather for ducks...and geese...and coots...

I thought the rain had stopped. I didn't stay up to watch the weather report last night, so I thought it was supposed to clear up. Oh well! I headed into town to bird the Myrick Marsh, a wetland area of the LaCrosse River. The rain remained light and with my camera tucked inside my barn coat, I pressed on.

I'm glad I did. The rainy weather seemed to bring the birds out, eager for a little bath. It was great to hear the din of the chorus frogs after their silence throughout the cold months. I practiced some birding by ear, hearing but not seeing a sora rail and eastern wood pewee, plus the bird that says "cow cat!" A review of my "Who Cooks for Poor Sam Peabody" CD, created by John Feith, should clear up that one. Yellow-headed blackbird, maybe? I know I've seen them there in the past.

Stepping off the trails into the dry sedges, I could watch song sparrows. I even got a photo of one singing. The quality of that photo remains to be seen. Most noteworthy were the millions and millions of tree swallows flitting all over the marsh, sometimes gathering in the treetops by the hundreds to digest their food. I could hardly walk without having one just miss me! Another treat was some wood ducks, which I watched for some time, but foolishly waited for a "decisive photographic moment," never getting it before they flew off. I thought that was the whole point of going digital, to be able to shoot away? Remind me of that next time!

In all, I saw 20 species and positively identified two by call. Not bad for a walk in the rain!

Canada geese Wood duck Song sparrow
Mallards Pied billed grebe Swamp sparrow
American Coots Sora rail Black capped chickadee
Common grackle Red-winged blackbird Great egret
Great Blue Heron Tree swallows Eastern wood pewee
Northern cardinal Robin Northern flicker
Downy woodpecker American goldfinch Cedar waxwing
American crow

Friday, April 08, 2005

Pelicans take flight!

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Three pelican friends

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Thursday, April 07, 2005

American White Pelicans galore!

I'd been hearing that the pelicans were back for some time now. I even saw four fly over about a month ago on a birding excursion up and down the Upper Mississippi. It was time to check them out up close.

Heading out to Richmond Bay on French Island, I saw a large flock cross over the highway near my turn off. This looked promising. Driving to the bridge where viewing was reported to be good, I could see glimpses of large white birds cruising in the bay. Pulling off into a parking lot, I headed down the banks, where spread out on calm water before me were big white birds--American White Pelicans---all over the bay. Moving mainly in twos, flying off at the sound of a Harley on the bridge or an airplane heading into the nearby airport, they made for quite the sight. Dressed up in high breeding plumage, including the "bump" on their bills to attract the opposite sex, they'd occasionally tip said bill just below the surface of the water, then tip their head back, with said bill looking larger momentarily. Though they never came right up to me, they were fairly cooperative photo subjects, not skittish at all. Unless you are on a Harley or flying a plane, that is.

As I made my way up the bank to walk further toward the culvert and into better light, a woman parked in the same lot asked me if the birds would stay there. As I started to talk with her, I noticed the boy in the back seat and recognized him immediately.

"Justin!" He jumped out and gave me a big hug. A former student of mine, out watching the birds with his old teacher. Well, until he lobbed a rock into the water and was told to get back in the van. Grumbling as he made his way back, I told him, "Justin, you have to listen. Great to see you again!"

The pelicans would glide tantalizingly close, then turn as one. A bald eagle flew overhead, great blue herons would drop down, red winged blackbirds came startlingly close and carried on in calls I'd never heard them make. Another woman carrying an even more impressive camera set-up than mine joined me at the top of the rocks. Comparing notes, I learn she is another birder/photographer. What are the odds? Another similar nutty individual in the same area?

The light could have been better. The birds could have moved in closer. But it was a great way to spend this early spring evening, no jacket, shirt sleeves only.

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