Bird brained stories!

Friday, April 21, 2006

May the bluebird of happiness......

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This is that time of year in the lives of birders that things become a bit frenetic. One can hardly keep up with the postings of new sightings on the various state lists, and jobs become an unwelcome annoyance when so much is happening out there. Luckily, my spring break as a teacher coincided with some perfectly lovely weather, so I was able to spend long, long stretches of time out in some of my favorite birding spots to see what I could see. It was sublime, but other than my Carolina Wren, nothing new was discovered. I spent some time after work earlier this week at a Mississippi River birding spot looking for migrating passerines. This is a great spot, one where I've spent hours since last fall, but which will quickly become a miserable location from the human standpoint. Lots of standing water equals lots of biting insects. That didn't seem to bother the many Yellow Rumped Warblers I enjoyed; in fact, they were thrilled. Following the rule that no camera means excellent views, these little charmers perched at eye level close to me, snatching bugs from the other side of upright branches, then darting back to their perch. Their contact calls were for the most part soft; with so many of them in close proximity, the louder harsher calls were hardly needed. Toward evening, a few began singing, so perhaps they are establishing territory right here.

White-Throated Sparrows and an Eastern Towhee also gave very close looks, though that Towhee would have been impossible to photograph, anyway. Lurking under brushy tangles, I'd catch nice looks for but a moment before he ducked into denser cover near the ground.

I made an attempt to see some new birds reported the other day, Bonapartes Gulls and Horned Grebes. I might even have seen them. Something white was bobbing up and down in the location reported. I need that scope!

Though I didn't add to the all-important list as a result of my lack in birding gear, it's really not important at all. What matters is that I go out into the woods, the shorelines, the wetlands, and spend time in the company of our wild feathered friends and other wild things. I stop and listen, look and see, enjoy learning more about each as it presents itself. There are more warblers on their way, many of which I've never seen, or at least didn't know I was seeing. Where some would call a day at the mall a perfect day, I call any time out in nature, removed from the noise and trappings of "civilization," a day well spent. Whether I add those new birds or not, time outdoors will reward me with time to contemplate my world, and unexpected moments of connection...perhaps even giving me, for just a moment, the Bluebird of Happiness!

Friday, April 14, 2006

Wake-up call

I've been to a wetland meadow near my home before sunrise a couple times this past week, and it seems I've been witnessing the wake-up calls of a pair of Sandhill Cranes each time. I know where one spends the night, because I discovered its spot quite by accident. Getting a fairly close look through the heavy morning fog, it didn't fly at first glance.

Back in the meadow yesterday morning, the fog was even thicker. The Sandhill was in its same spot, preening and fluffing its feathers, occasionally stopping to look my way. From somewhere behind me in the fog, I heard that sonorous bugling, and watched as my friend stopped, looked, then straigthened its neck to call in response. This happened a couple more times, and I'd expected that before long, off this Crane would fly to join its mate and head into the fields for the day. It didn't.

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Drastic Photoshop measures saved this image!

As the sun finally burned off the fog, I watched as the pair found each other and flew off, side by side. How much longer will this be the routine? How lucky have I been to watch at such close range this intimate morning wake-up call?

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Zen Birdism

Since it's my spring break, since the weather, until today, has been gorgeous, since I'm a birder...I've been out every day, even this morning, looking for birds. As I've done this, I'm reminded again of how birding can be a zen-like activity, if one allows that to happen. If one allows that to happen, the birding will likely improve, too.

Yesterday was a perfect example of Zen Birdism at work. I'd read a post on the mnbird list from Dedrick Benz about the continued sighting of a Carolina Wren on some trails in the bluffs of Winona. That would be a life bird for me, and even if it wasn't, it would still be cool to see. So off I went. Wherever I go, there I am!

I'd not hiked these trails before. More open than my customary woodland hiking in Hixon Forest, these trails are designated for mountain biking. There were bikers, but I actually experienced less traffic than I normally see in Hixon. The trails meandered all over the place, as did I.

I wasn't exactly sure I was following the right trail to the location of the wren, but I decided I really didn't care. I just went wherever I thought things looked interesting. Heading over a dry streambed, I heard loud calling between Tufted Titmice, and spotted them high in the trees overhead. Other sounds were heard as well; Ruby Crowned Kinglets were singing loudly, and wonder of wonder, I could actually see them. Nearby was a small flock of Golden Crowned Kinglets. These are birds that are usually heard, not seen, due to their tiny size, not much bigger than a hummingbird. Such a treat on this warm spring afternoon!

Wandering some more, I saw a flash of movement in the brush along the edges of the trail. The wren? No. Hermit Thrush! I hoped it would sing, but it was quiet today.

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I wandered all over these trails, at one point questioning if I'd even found my way back to the proper trail. I enjoyed watching a Black-Capped Chickadee excavating a nest hole in a dead tree. I'd never seen one doing this before, so I stopped to watch for a time, pondering the truth of the statement, "Not all who wander are lost." I was thinking maybe today, that wasn't true. I was worrying about that fact even less. Even when lost, eventually I find my way out.

Climbing higher into the bluffs, I found a wren and watched it skulking about in the underbrush, never getting a good look at its face, but concluding it was probably a House Wren. No matter. I wandered some more, eventually heading back down.

At a hairpin turn on the downward hike, I saw a flash of movement across a draw in the bluffside. Climbing on deadfall, clearly wren-like in shape and movements, there! White eyestripe, large size (for a wren), rusty color! Without even trying to look, the Carolina Wren presented itself for me to watch in the golden afternoon sun. Hopping around the deadfall, I'd lose it every so often as it ducked underneath. Movement in the grass to one side caught my eye, but no! It was the Hermit Thrush again. Still refusing to sing.

Not the Carolina Wren. High up the bluffside now, its song rang out---loudly. The guide books all mention the loudness of the song, but they don't do justice to the intensity and volume. It didn't choose to sing for very long, but sing it did. Wandering aimlessly, thinking maybe I was lost, the "target" bird presented itself, loud and clear for me to enjoy. Along the way were other surprises and delights, none of which I looked to find. That's the zen of birding...just being there and ready to enjoy whatever flies into view. And knowing enough to appreciate the gift you've been given.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Adventures in Birding, Part III

In a perfect world, instead of sitting here this morning typing, I'd have been somewhere in the Cache River Wildlife Refuge right now, working as part of the last search team of the season for Cornell's Ivory Bill search. The world is not perfect. For various reasons, I had to resign that spot on their team earlier this year, and some other lucky person is there in my stead. Since I had to set aside a once in a lifetime experience, I'm trying to console myself by creating another.

I know there are Pileated Woodpeckers in one of my favorite birding spots, the Hixon Forest. I've seen them. I hear them all the time. On rare occasions, I might be lucky enough to get a photo of them. Until this last stop on my birding adventure day, I'd been able to take a grand total of two photos of this elusive bird. In my entire life. I know, I know, some of you have them coming right into your yard, hanging on your feeders. No such luck here. With one rare exception reported earlier, I find them to be highly wary, soaring to the other side of a ridge at any approach. If the Ivory-Billed is anything like its more common cousin, I can understand the difficulty getting a definitive image of it. I wish "my" search team great good luck in doing so.

My consolation prize is simple, yet not simple at all. I'd like to find out where the Hixon Pileateds choose to nest, then return a few times to document their nesting season. It probably won't happen. No doubt they nest in adjacent forest, on private property. Still, it's a challenge that will occupy my time, instead of moping around, thinking all kinds of "if only" thoughts.

So as I entered the forest on this bright afternoon, I headed off to the trails where I've been most likely to spot these birds. Just as I started my ascent, I heard the familiar raucous laughter. Behind me. I'd spotted earlier woodpecker sign, a pile of chips on the ground below an excavated hole. I often see this sign, right along the forest edge near the start of the trail, and it's always fresh. I need to spend time in the early morning here, as I suspect that's when they're working this area.

As I stopped and listened for the call again, I realized they were over in another valley of the forest, and backtracked. Walking slowly, stopping every so often, I'd narrow my search. There were definitely two birds calling, and they were calling often. As I climbed a bit up the north slope of this part of the forest, I caught a flash of red. There!

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They always seem to be so distant, alert to intruders into their kingdom, and a photo like this is about the best I can hope to take. Still, photos weren't the objective today. I tried to hunker down so I could creep ever closer, see where and what she was doing and......crash! Through the forest came a cluster of runners from the nearby college. Loud runners. Yelling to each other. Grumbling internally, I knew they had just as much right to be here, and hoped maybe their movement would actually chase the birds closer to me.

Not a chance. Even more maddening was the fact that several clusters of equally noisy runners came crashing through...and they didn't just move on, but circled the same trail two or three times! I kept telling myself, you're only jealous. You used to be a runner yourself, until an injury ended your distance running days (and added inches to my butt!) Still, I was mostly one of those who subscribed to the loneliness of the long distance runner, so I was a quiet runner.

I bided my time. I knew eventually they'd be gone, and hoped the birds would not wander too far. They didn't. I found a log I could park on, and watched and listened as they flew from one area to another. There was some drumming, but not a lot. It didn't appear they were excavating a nest hole just yet. I saw both a male and female, so she isn't on a nest yet. Pileateds tend to mate for life and remain together throughout the year. They will spend days excavating a new nest hole, then take turns incubating, the female by day, the male taking the night shift. So it appeared I still have some time.

What they were doing today was still interesting. I kept seeing them near the ground, sometimes at the base of trees; other times it wasn't obvious what they were doing. I'm used to seeing them hitch up a tree, then glide to another...usually on the other side of the trunk from me. Today I couldn't quite figure out what was up, until I got this view in a beam of sunlight.

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They were ripping away dead bark on fallen trees and limbs, probably taking great delight in fresh carpenter ants, their preferred food. It was fascinating to watch as they'd tear away a strip of bark, then probe deep into the remains for ants. I spent nearly an hour on that log. This part of the forest seems to have a lot of these fallen logs, perhaps because of its damp, shady location. Someone else came through near the birds, barking dogs and chatting people, sending both birds sailing over the ridge out of sight.

I know where they like to go to eat now. I'll go back several times, checking my theories about their daily routines at different times of the day. I won't be helping to find an Ivory Billed Woodpecker, but maybe I'll succeed in finding a Pileated nest site. Even if I don't, as with the Ivory-Bill, I'll have a good time trying and get to know this elusive bird better.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Adventures in Birding, Part II

Deciding that it was time for me to move on, I headed back up highway X52, stopping off in Lansing to check out a certain Yellow Bird Arts shop. Well, she does have bird-themed items throughout her utterly cool store. Having promised myself "no new fabric" until I finish my current project, I managed to get out of there with a mere Fat Quarter, cool thread for my current project, a magazine and a pattern. I just love that shop!

However, this is supposed to be a post about wild birds, not errant birders run wild in quilt shops. Having allowed myself just enough fun, I was back on the road, heading for the border of my natal state. Traveling along the riverside, my eyes caught movement--significant movement--in a small backwater just off the road a few miles north of Lansing. For those who are not from "around here," it might help to understand a bit about the Mississippi River as it appears here. Growing up as I did in Minneapolis, just a mile from the river, I thought I knew all about it. Ha! When I first moved here, just 150 miles downstream, I couldn't believe it was the same river. When I first saw a barge in the middle of the river, I couldn't imagine what that artificial floating island could be. By the time they'd locked up to St. Paul, they'd separated the barges, impossible as it was for them to be hooked together and lock through the narrowing channels.

Around here, it can be hard to say just where "the river" actually starts. It can be a mile across at points, that mile encompassing small estuaries, sloughs and small channels. Sometimes these are called "lakes," as in "Lawrence Lake." This place where the significant movement was spotted was one of these small ponds, with a slice of land separating it from the larger backwater channel. Pulling off the road, I realized I could jump the tracks--ah, brought me back to my youth!--and crawl around for a closer look. What had caught my attention was a raft of Northern Shovelers. A regular convention of them, flashy males all decked out like a bunch of Shriners in their fezes, accompanied by their better halves. In the sunlight that had returned, they made a striking picture indeed.

After crawling around and taking note of the various birds, I continued on. Not much further up the road, I could see drifts of white, HUGE drifts. Thinking I was looking at the swans that gather, I pulled off, only to see that instead, it must have been at least five hundred American White Pelicans. They were restless, paddling about, scooping up food, then flying off, always just a bit further north.

Pelicans just crack me up. Always have. They swim about, trying to achieve that same regal elegance usually credited to swans, but look at them! Perfectly designed to do what they do, scoop up fish from just below the surface, they strike me as comic strip birds. This little cluster was doing that circle thing, where they swim in tight little circles a few times before one of them gets an idea in its head and leads the rest of them on some indeterminate pathway.

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Just a little further up the road, one could spot a Bald Eagle, standing watch over his mate on the nest. Hundreds of coots, dabbling ducks and some Canada Geese, along with the occasional Great Blue Heron, created a tableaux of nature before me. All the calling and singing filled the air, so long quiet through the cold months of winter, delighting me with its long-forgotten familiarity. It will soon become quiet again, as these birds move on, spread out or raise their young. I enjoyed the nature pageant before leaving the River Road, to head into the woods.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Adventures in Birding, Part 1

The weather had promised sunshine, warm temps and light breezes. Add to that my day off from work, and you have the formula for a day filled with Adventures in Birding. So many, in fact, that it will take more than this one post to share them all.

Last week at our Coulee Audubon meeting, we were treated to the story of Peregrine Falcon recovery by Bob Anderson, who has worked in concert with WEnergies to place nest boxes on power plant stacks along the Mississippi River. I had a special interest in his story, because my father's engineering design company was named "Falcon Engineering." A task given to me by Dad, one I never completed to the satisfaction of either of us, was to create a logo for his company that incorporated a Peregrine Falcon forming the letter "F."

That, and they are just plain cool! Peregrine Falcons were at one point nearly extinct in North America, going the way of the Bald Eagle. When Bob first became involved with them, there were only a few pairs left at all, and much controversy surrounded the captive breeding program started. There were those who felt they should not be held captive, but allowed to pass into the annals of extirpation with dignity. Thankfully, that didn't happen.

Peregrine Falcons are cliff dwellers, making their eyries on rock walls facing open water. The Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge in which I live is prime habitat for these birds. Initially, and continuing to this day, they were choosing to nest on high buildings in urban areas or power plant smokestacks. They still do. However, in 1996, Bob designed a "rock box," a nest box that looked like a rock ledge on the inside, to encourage Peregrines to become cliff dwellers again. That box was placed high on a bluff overlooking the river at Effigy Mounds National Monument, and from that placement, a population of Peregrines has gone on to nest in bluff face locations on the river. Several of these locations are within an hour's drive of me. Yesterday, I headed out to one of those locations, Leo's Bluff between Harpers Ferry and Waukon Junction in Iowa.

I'd never ventured south of Lansing Iowa, one of my favorite river towns. Take X52 south from there, and you enter a place apart from others. The road winds along the river before climbing to higher agricultural land, then dropping down to hug the river once more. Along the way, a picturesque old dilapidated farmhouse, a hillside church with an old cemetary out front and boathouses along the river are part of the scene. Reaching Leo's Bluff, I pulled off after scaring away three Turkey Vultures who, knowing how ugly they are, just didn't want to stay around for photos!

Immediately looking up, I saw him--the male Peregrine Falcon, perched on an overhanging branch, surveying his kingdom. Not long after I arrived, Bob Anderson pulled up. He set up his scope, which gave me a really up close look at this magnificent bird. Bob was trying to read the band as well as locate the female. We heard her. We just couldn't see her. These birds successfully fledged chicks last year for the first time at this location.

Suddenly, the bird began to sound off. A Turkey Vulture was flying too close to the cliff face, and away he went! These are not large birds, about 16-20 inches long. Yet at speeds of 60mph, he attacked this eagle sized bird, successfully running it off his territory.

At one point, he flew off for no obvious reason that we could see. When I looked at my very crummy photos last night, it's apparent now. He grabbed a small bird from the air and likely cached it.

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Try as we might, the female could not be located. Still, the male gave us plenty to appreciate, commanding his world from on high amid this rocky, inaccessible location. Giving pursuit to passing birds much larger than he, tearing apart a cached bird for lunch, feathers flying, calling a warning to any who thought to approach, I could only watch in awe. The weathermen had been wrong. The sun disappeared. Raindrops began to fall, slowly at first, then with more persistence. I watched the Peregrine, threatened species, ruling his world for about an hour before moving on. I'll watch him again soon. I've seen the Peregrines on the smokestacks and the tall buildings, but seeing them in their original wild environment is something special. A real adventure in birding.

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At home in his bluffside (eating on the far right)

Saturday, April 01, 2006

A glorious good lucky day!

Sometimes we get lucky. Sometimes. My day off this past week was Tuesday, a glorious blue-sky early spring day, one in which everyone seemed to enjoy peeling off that outer layer of sweatshirt or jacket. Not having wandered the south trail at Goose Island in some weeks, I wanted to take a little hike to see what I could see.

Clearly, things are warming up. When last I went down this trail, I was valiantly trying to pull off some late season cross-country skiing. Not a spot of snow now, not even in the shade. The riverbottom forest was alive with woodpeckers drumming. I gave up even trying to count the Downies, but they had company; Hairies were also around, a Red-Bellied was heard and Pileateds, as usual, were not seen but clearly at work.

As I walked along, I heard a new sound. Was it a Tufted Titmouse? No, not quite right, and too many of them. When I localized the call, I realized there were multiple callers, all centered on a low, swampy area. Spring peepers! Tentative to be sure, but warming up, joined by a few hardy chorus frogs!

Out in the sloughs, I watched ten lazy Tundra Swans, mostly with their heads tucked under a wing. Just above the treeline, a Rough-Legged Hawk entertained me for a time as it hovered and dove, only to repeat this sequence several times. At last, it dove, then disappeared into the trees, probably to enjoy lunch.

Then I heard an unmistakeable, yet not identified, song. There! Near the open water, in some shrubby growth! I know that song. What is it? It's been months, I can't remember!
"Maids, maids put on your tea kettle-ettle-ettle!"

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That's right! Song Sparrow! I enjoyed hearing this music again, creeping ever closer for photos until he gave me this backward glance before darting down to cover near the ground. I can't wait to go out again to see and hear who has returned from points south.

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I also can't wait to really sit and enjoy the latest installment of I and the Bird, hosted by Nuthatch of "Bootstrap Analysis." Lots and lots of new blogs are gathered here, and just for the record, she did not solicit my submission! Enjoy some of the best in recent bird blogging.

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