Thursday, March 30, 2006

Think Spring

What better time to think spring than in the depths of winter--such as it has been. I was looking through the Old Farmer’s Almanac and spotted a great article on what to plant to attract hummingbirds and butterflies. There is a list of 24 flowers known to attract hummingbirds and 43 that will attract butterflies. A lot of them do double duty.
It seems that the choices range from allium to zinnia and everything in between. So what happens if, like me, you are flower challenged? I have to admit, I don’t know an allium from a zinnia. To the rescue comes Lone Pine Publishing. It recently sent me a couple of books for review, Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians, and Perennials for Ohio. (This is the same company that published Jim McCormac’s great book, Birds of Ohio.)
Don’t dismiss the first book based on its rather lengthy and pinpointed geographical title. The 496-page volume covers 16 states, including much of Ohio. More than 1,200 species in 90 families are covered in 800 color photographs. The best part, for folks like me, is the color key for finding a species by flower color. This type of quick-finding color helper is great for beginning birders and invaluable for a flower book.
The book also includes information on history, medicine, Native American traditions, folklore and name origins. This is a great book to have even before the flowers bloom. It took the authors 14 years to compile the information in this book so it’s a steal.
The second book, on our state’s perennials, is more tightly focused. Grouped into 89 entries, these species, varieties, hybrids and cultivars range from the easiest to grow to challenging flowers that will expand your gardening triumphs. The book is loaded with personal comments, common sense and garden wisdom. The flowers-at-a-glance section in the front of the book is better than any written index, ever. More than 500 color photographs make this a great read even if you’re not a gardener.

Guarding the Turf

I almost didn’t make it to work today. And when I did get in, my feet were still a bit damp. When it’s bright and sunny and the temperature is holding hands with the 50 degree mark on the thermometer—well, heading for that cramped office cubicle, dust-filled air and ringing telephones tends to lose its appeal.
I stopped at a wetlands spot in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. There had been some reports of a couple swans there so I needed to check it out. The swans were there—mute swans—along with 35 other species.
It was easy birding. I stood next to my car and just scanned the area. When I saw some duck activity I was glad that I’ve been procrastinating about getting the spotting scope out of the trunk for the past couple weeks. Sometimes it pays to be slow. Northern shovelers with their oversized beaks making bubbles in the water like kids, male hooded mergansers in regal splendor, a belted kingfisher hanging on to a wiggling fish large enough to make me envious.
And that’s the way I could have reported to work; dry feet, fresh air in my lungs and a head filled with thoughts of things other than what I get paid to do.
The cacophony created by the red-winged blackbirds felt glorious after so many months of winter silence. I should have been paying more attention. I never saw him coming until he was 15 feet away. It looked like two, blood-red eyes bearing down on me. When I got past the red I could see the yellow parentheses on the outsides of those eyes. Then the black body and, whoosh! the lethal beak. Whoa, partner, that was close. A rather upset red-winged blackbird landed on a nearby branch and was explaining something to me I really did not understand. To make his point, he came at me again. I got the message and moved and moved and moved with each pass until he was satisfied I was no longer a threat. He settled atop a stalk of last years’ fragmities to be sure I’d stay put. To get to my car, however, I’d have to cross through the turf in question. My choices were to venture through his territory and risk a peck on my bald pate, or take a slightly circuitous route that might do damage to my tasseled shoes.
It’s not the first time I went someplace with wet feet.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Heal the Wounds

Heal the Wounds, Hide the Scars

Digging through a small wooden box in which I keep a lot of mementos of the last century, I came across a William Spear-designed pin commemorating the March 24, 1989, Exxon Valdez tragedy. I was big on pins celebrating one cause or another in those days. And like bookmarks to measure what we've lost and wristwatches to tell us what time it isn't, this pin combines those two concepts into a reminder of what was and what might have been. And it adds an element of what still is and what might be. It depicts a simple, oil-stained eagle feather.
Before the oil had washed away and the smoke cleared, Exxon paid about $300 million to the people affected by the spill. The courts set the damage figure at $287 million. Exxon also paid $2.2 billion for the clean-up efforts, until 1992 when the U.S. Coast Guard and State of Alaska declared the cleanup complete.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline continues to supply about 17% of the U.S. domestic oil production.
A couple years ago, on the 15th anniversary of the beaching of the oil tanker on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council issued a progress report. Instead of direct intervention, such as rearing and releasing seabirds, the trustee council focused on gaining knowledge and ensuring good stewardship as the best tools for fostering the long-term health of marine ecosystems.
Given all the human-inflicted environmental disasters we've had since March 24, 1989, including a couple of wars, the Exxon Valdez exercise is beginning to look like a fading oil spot on the garage floor.
We're paying a high price for our endless love affair with the automobile. To paraphrase President Bush, however, we'll just leave it to our children and grandchildren to resolve when we should end this affair.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

What are Friends For?

Getting By With Help From Our Friends

I was a bit skeptical from the beginning. If the guides had not been the best available in the area, I would never have done it.
I had been fishing for steelhead on the Cuyahoga river, just north of Station Road bridge in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. As for the fishing, well the bird activity was excellent. A pileated woodpecker hammered away on a fallen log less than 50 feet from where I was enjoying one of Northeast Ohio’s little known pleasures--fishing for steelhead trout in the dead of winter.
The water temperature was 39 degrees, about the same as the air. Bright blue skies and sunshine. Great for humans and birds. Not so great for trout. Being heliophobic, they prefer an overcast day and water that is stained light green.
I began to think the fish were hanging out someplace else and the water further downstream looked more promising. This is the fishers’ variation on the grass and fence adage. I walked the railroad tracks for a while, occasionally wandering down toward the stream in search of a place to either fish or cross. The corollary to the “fishing looks more promising downstream,” is the belief that it always looks better on the other side of the river.
I passed the heron rookery, eerily silent in its cloak of white. Loosely built stick nests rustled, threatening to give in and obey gravity’s law. Four inches of snow crunched under foot.
Occasionally I stopped to examine animal tracks and tried to figure out what had happened. Turkeys had come through earlier in the morning, however, later than the rabbit that had zigzagged over the tracks and into what is a pond most months. Smaller tracks, stepping on the turkeys’, suggested something other than raccoons and squirrels.
After about 30 minutes of what might appear to squirrels as aimless wondering, I stopped to observe a half dozen Eastern bluebirds gleaning the branches for insects. Suddenly I realized I was paralleling two sets of coyote tracks. We seemed to be headed in the same general direction, possibly with the same mission in mind; to cross the river.
Their meandering, from the railroad tracks down to the river’s edge and back up, was the same as mine. When I looked closely at the sharp cut of their tracks in the snow, I realized this pair could not be far ahead. I scanned the route and saw nothing.
Eventually their tracks led to an unlikely spot about two feet above the rushing stream and abruptly stopped. The water color was such that I could see about 10 inches below the surface, perfect for steelhead but not good for humans when you’re unsure of what might follow in the next 12 inches.
Sure enough, the animals had crossed at this spot. I don’t think it was their first time. A strong scent of urine filled the air. In fact, steam rose from a spot they had marked on a sycamore tree next to their path. If I was this close, why couldn’t I see the creatures?
I reasoned they had to know what they were doing. And who am I to argue? A helpful tree limb gave me support as I tentatively lowered my left foot into the water. The footing was excellent. Beneath the 18 inches of green-stained water lay a smooth gravel bed offering excellent passage. Most places in the Cuyahoga River are like trying to walk on bowling balls. Ice and moss covered bowling balls to be a bit more accurate.
I worked my way into the middle of the stream against a rather stiff current. And since I was there, I decided to give the trout yet another chance to embarrass themselves. The fish, with their 2K brains, were a bit smarter than the fisher this day. From the middle of the river I watched a northern flicker, then a red-bellied woodpecker, take turns prying at the bark of the same dead tree limb.
Eventually I crossed the stream in water only slightly above my knees. I walked the stream bank in both directions looking for some evidence of my two guides. There was none. They must have opted for a bit of a swim. Or, as writer John Gierach has observed, they probably hid behind a nearby tree wondering what the guy standing in the water, waving the graphite stick, was up to.
I listened to the tinkling sound of golden-crowned kinglets above me. I thought about the coyotes and how they knew of that spot to ford the stream; how they marked it for others who would follow. It’s unfortunate that we humans have lost this “deep map” as native Americans refer to the databank of knowledge animals possess. I’m glad the animals are there to guide us.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Once is Not Enough
by Clyde Witt
In February, Susan and I braved the sunshine and warm temperatures of southern California to bird a new spot. Someone had to go; we decided to make the sacrifice. Called the Carrizo Plain and in part protected by the Nature Conservancy, it’s been described as America’s Serengeti. That’s a stretch. The Wilds in central Ohio is more like the Serengeti.
Carrizo is, however, magical; like nowhere else. We were dazzled by a cloud of mountain bluebirds too many to count. Literally hundreds. We stopped the car in the middle of the road and let the birds descend around us. The huge mixed flock contained American pipits, lark sparrows and house finches in red and orange variations. Color dripped from the few fence posts and strands of rusting barbed wire that recorded a time gone by when cattle roamed this place. Burrowing owls popped up next to the road as we drove by. The soda lake within this 50-mile-long birding Mecca was lined with hundreds of American avocets.
A major draw at Carrizo Plains for us -- and many other birders though we saw few of them -- was the California condor. By late afternoon we had about given up hope of seeing this 20-pound bird with its 9.5-foot wingspan. As dusk descended we opted to drive over to a spot where the San Andreas Fault is visible. Fortunately, Susan was driving – always safest when we’re birding. I was debating rolling up the window or letting the warm air continue to blow through my hair when a huge black shape came up from the ground a couple hundred yards to our right. With the calm of a person spotting an American Bison crossing the road, I screamed, stop! As an experienced birder/driver, Susan knows that means now -- not why.
It’s still unclear if the car had actually stopped rolling as we scampered up a nearby hill, our binoculars focused on the telltale white patches under the bird’s wings, finger-like primaries on the ends of extended flat wings, unmistakable huge yellow beak and the brilliant white patch of upper tail coverts. Whoa, there!
We looked at each other, our brains processing the data we had and suspected. We realized we had a juvenile golden eagle. Our hearts restarted their normal pumping functions. Hey, a good bird is what it is. And we now have another reason to go back.