Monday, January 29, 2007

Winter Birding

Winter birding in northeast Ohio can be thrilling in terms of seeing species you’d otherwise have to travel to the Arctic to see. Or it can be so deadly dull you’re better off just looking out your front window. Most days fall somewhere in between.
This weekend was one of those strange, in between days. With friends Karin and Pat, Susan and I made our annual winter pilgrimage to Killdeer Plains Wildlife Management Area. We go there at this time of year to see the invasion of northern owl species, primarily, and other birds that can be seen at no other time or place—except the open tundra of Canada.
The fact that the trip also includes fabulous homemade soups, breads and desserts is not overlooked; maybe even an incentive.
An omen of what lay ahead was our spotting of a Turkey Vulture only a few miles east of Hinckley, Ohio. It is common knowledge that the Turkey Vultures are lured back to this region on March 15 each year with aromas rising from grilled sausages and pancakes. Some people have twisted that around to think the feast is to celebrate the birds’ return. Not true. In this case the tail wags the dog.
So there it was, January 27 and we bagged our first Turkey Vulture of the year. Not an Arctic bird, for sure. Things picked up as we neared Killdeer Plains and shunted off to the north to search the open farm fields. With the wind blowing up a wind chill factor off the charts we spotted hundreds of Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs, true northern birds. Things were heating up. Longspurs are curious, sparrow-sized birds with short legs and an incredible array of shades of brown in their coloring. Their visiting our windswept barren corn fields is like us going to Florida for a break from the weather.
What had started as a slow birding day began to taper off about the time we entered Killdeer Plains. The large raptors we had hoped to see had yet to arrive. We were treated to an amazing display of affection by a pair of Bald Eagles. When these big birds get it on, they get it on! Right there on the ice with hundreds of Canada Geese watching.
We counted about 70 Tundra Swans on the open water of one of the area's larger lakes. Watching swans fly is an amazing sight. As they came in for a landing the birds would talk with each other, turn and feather their wings and stall in mid air, then drop softly into an open spot among their kind.
We had all but given up on spotting an owl this trip. Sometimes you get lucky and see five or six species of owls in one day. This was not one of those days. Making one last drive past ideal Short-eared Owl habitat in lighting so poor we were unsure, at first, what was moving to our left, we saw a Short-eared Owl rise from the ground and hover-hunt over the grassy pasture. We stopped the car in the middle of the road and jumped out (I think it was in that order) to get a better view. The pudgy 15-inch body and 38-inch wings make this bird an unlikely candidate for graceful flight. It’s flight pattern is often described as moth-like. We watched this animal, no more than 30 feet away, rise and fall in the wind; diving at what it hoped would be dinner. It turned and pirouetted on its wingtips, paying no attention to us. I was reminded of the admonition, dance like no one is watching. As it moved ahead it barked to its neighbors whom we could not see. Suddenly there were a half dozen owls rising from the ground, moving in all directions.
As the owls' barking faded into the night we forgot we had seen only 33 other species this day. It will always be remembered as another great winter birding day in northern Ohio.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Blowin’ in the Wind Part II

Last May I wrote, with great exuberance, about the fancy new wind turbine on Cleveland’s lakefront, pumping megawatts of power into the Great Lakes Science Center. I’ve had a remote connection to some folks monitoring the site for dead birds and the reports, albeit secondhand, have all been positive. No birds have been whacked by the props.
Then last night I heard Mark Shieldcastle speak. Mark is a wildlife biologist with the Crane Creek Wildlife Research Station out near Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. By the end of Mark’s hour-long presentation, me, and a lot of the other left-leaning tree huggers were having second, maybe third thoughts about wind generated electricity.
Wind turbines, touted as a green alternative, ain’t so green it seems. First, they’re notoriously inefficient. Their efficiency rating is about 15%. Nuclear power is about 85%. And they’re not so animal friendly, either. Had I thought through the scenario, I might have figured out why people are not finding dead birds at the base of the wind turbines in this area. The example Mark used was a Golden-crowned Kinglet weighing five-grams, traveling 10 mph. In the dark it meets a turbine prop traveling at 150 mph. The area enclosed by the circumference of those spinning blades equals about four acres! How much of that bird would be left and in what direction should we look? Oh.
The proposal that is giving people sweaty palms here in Cleveland is the installation of turbines out in the lake. Listen closely and you can hear peoples’ lips smacking. As Mark points out, if we can’t find dead birds on land, what chance would we have of finding them in the lake?
This area of the planet is critical to bird migration. It’s one of the best spots anywhere for warbler migration in spring. It’s about the only spot on Earth where the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler has been seen off its breeding grounds in Michigan. And while birds often fly higher than the 400-foot-high or 600-foot-high towers that are proposed, they to land and take off with frequency in the lake and around the lake shore.
Information on bird strikes against wind turbine blades is minimal at best. Altamont, California, has some good data because the turbines there are killing hundreds of large raptors with frightening regularity. A mystery killing by wind turbines is happening to bat species, says Mark. Thousands of bats are being killed by the wind farm project in the Appalachians of West Virginia. For some unknown reason, bats are attracted to the spinning blades. They’ve also found dead bats at the site of Ohio’s only wind farm, in Bowling Green.
A recent article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer quotes Amy Gomberg, environmental advocate for Environment Ohio in Columbus, as saying, “I don’t believe wind developers would put up wind turbines where they would have a negative impact on birds. It would make them look bad.”
Oh, my. Wake up! Big Wind is lining up at the government trough just like Big Oil, Big Guns and Big Auto have done for years. Without more solid science regarding the impact of wind turbines on wildlife, Big Wind is going to create a giant sucking sound heard throughout northeast Ohio and wherever else it can site its wind farms. And only when pigs fly, and get sliced up in the turbine blades, will they care about looking bad.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Patience is a Virtue

Sometimes it’s easy to unwittingly step briskly on the path toward disaster. At other times it’s a more casual stroll. As with most unpleasant experiences, this potential disaster had its humorous side. Whether it was humorous, of course, depends on your state of mind at the time, and whether you had committed the error.
The lines at the Southwest Airlines ticket counter in Chicago, the other day, were so long it was hard to imagine the airline had enough planes in its fleet to handle all of these would-be passengers. Slowly we crept along, like cattle moving to slaughter; or skiers moving to the lift chairs, similar experiences for some.
An apparent supervisor was doing her best to direct people. Those with only luggage to check, go right. No, my right, your left. No luggage to check? Go left. No, my left, your right. And those who weren’t sure if they were even supposed to be at the airport, wait over there. A thankless and endless job. She managed a relatively cheerful smile throughout the chore while making drastic pleas for help on her walkie-talkie.
Help arrived in the form of a breathless young man who had the expression of a deer caught in the headlights. The supervisor, while dealing with irate passengers, directed the young man to rearrange the black coral belts that kept us in our lanes as we moved laboriously toward the frenzied people at the ticket counter. She gave him instructions without making eye contact. He looked at her as if she were speaking a language he was hearing for the first time. Eventually, she got to the end of her sentence. The guy was so confused he had ask her, again, what he was supposed to do.
Finally he got it and moved to action. Bobbing and weaving, ducking beneath the lines that held us all in check, the young fellow worked his way into the middle of the mess. His goal, I think, was to create two major streams feeding toward the ticket counters. He began retracting this strap and extending that one. He compartmentalized, expanded, eliminated and created with the speed of a man on a mission from god.
People stopped moving forward, turned left or right depending where he had established inlet or outlet. What had been only confusion now degenerated into chaos.
In less than three minutes this whirling dervish managed to bottle up the whole lot of us. It was soon apparent that no one could get to the ticket counters.
The supervisor, meanwhile, had kept her back to the action. She soon realized that the line was getting longer, not shorter as she had hoped. And what had been only a murmmer of conversation coming from the passengers, was now reaching a decibel level that might concern even OSHA. As the hapless young man created the last barrier he was confused beyond hope. He stood still, hands in his packets, looking hopefully in the direction of the supervisor.
Mob-rule began to take over. People nearest the connectors of the retracting barrier straps began unhooking them and move in the general direction of the ticket counters. Before long, passengers had reestablished straight lines and the maze created by the young fellow was a matter of jokes. Order emerged from chaos. To the supervisor’s credit, I noticed she was quietly explaining to the young man, this time using hand gestures and getting affirmative nods from him, how to establish a corral, not a maze.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Watch Your Back

Bird watching is about more than watching birds. It’s about observing bird behavior as well. And of all the bird behaviors we could list, sex and eating are two activities at the top of every birder’s list.
This is about eating. I was driving north on MLK Boulevard in Cleveland this morning and some motion off to my left caught my eye. A Red-tail Hawk was cruising along next to me, about door-handle level, 25 feet away. I was going about 30 mph and this guy was keeping pace. Not even puffing as far as I could tell. He was focused on a huge flock of plump American Robins feeding in an open spot, surrounded by some sort of berry-bearing tree. The robins were flanked by Fox Squirrels, also enjoying the fruit treat.
I slowed as I saw the hawk put down its landing gear, talons wide open. A fraction of a second before it could nab an orange-breasted morsel, the flock exploded in all directions!
The huge bird banked sharply to its right and clamped down on one of the fuzzy spectators that had been up on its haunches like it was watching a sporting event. Full power climb, squirrel wiggling (and probably screeching) without missing a beat, the hawk headed off to brunch.
I replayed the event in my mind on my way in to the office (more fun than thinking about what would try to eat me when I got there) and have come to the conclusion that the squirrel was the number-one target. The faint toward the robins was all part of the plan. Cool move.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

So, Where Are the Birds?

While our compilers digest the numbers from the Annual Audubon Christmas Count, we can all ponder the fate of birds this winter. At our Audubon chapter’s chili dinner I spoke with some of the other territory leaders and everyone seemed to have the same question: Where were the birds, today? Weather was mild, by count-day standards. No snow. Birds could scatter and find plenty of natural food.
And there’s another reason why birds were missing, at least in my area, which includes Waterworks Park in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. One of my ace counters found a spot in the park where wrong-headed, misguided individuals have created a feral-cat community.
As he says, “The cats are fat, comfortable and dry. ‘Compassionate’ citizens supply them with food, shelter and care. The cats live in a little compound of pet cages, plastic tarps and food bowls in a shrubby area near a parking lot on the Fit-Trail.”
He adds that the colony in Waterworks Park is the best organized he’s ever seen. “Someone was always in attendance with them when I was there. There is more than one ‘good Samaritan.’ They bring bags of food, check on the cats' welfare, etc. I counted about five cats, but I suspect there are more lurking in the brush.”
The American Bird Conservancy estimates that as many as one billion birds are killed each year by domestic and feral cats ... If you have a cat keep it indoors. Tell your neighbors to do the same. And if you know other kind-hearted, ill-advised, injudicious folks who create these disgusting cat hobo jungles, tell them to get some goldfish for pets and leave the cats to the Red-tailed Hawks.