Monday, February 19, 2007

Tunnel of Love

I thought the best way to celebrate President’s Day might be to watch birds at my feeder this morning. Actually, it’s the best way to celebrate the start of any day. Plenty of metaphorical things about birds, feeding at the public trough (to mix a metaphor) and cooperation among species, to go along with a day of celebration for politicians. We celebrate virtually everything and everyone in this country. Soon we’ll have a national holiday for NASCAR drivers. Only kids south of the Mason and Dixon line will get the day off from school, however.
But then, I digress. Back to feeding at the public trough. We’ve had a Red Squirrel terrorizing the birds at our feeder ever since fall. I was hoping this guy, and his new-found-friend, would hibernate and let the birds eat in peace. Not so.
I glanced up from the local snewspaper every so often and there he’d be, sucking up the free chow. And while he is kind of cute, he is still a freeloader, not unlike some poilticians. I realized that every now and again he was also in his favorite tree, yet there were no tracks in the snow. On closer inspection, I saw that he had burrowed a tunnel from the base of the tree to the base of the bird feeder. No clumping through 18 inches of snow for this guy. It was really cool: grab some seeds, zip through the tunnel and eat from a spot where he could warn away those winged interlopers.
As I finished the paper’s section on what passes for arts and entertainment in this area, I noticed that Red’s friend, Stumpy (because she has only half a tail) was examining the tree-end of the tunnel while Red was feeding his face at the other. At about the time Red turned to go back to his tree, stumpy headed into the tunnel to see where it led.
Midway in the diffused light of the tunnel an explosion of snow, squirrel fur and sunflower seeds erupted. A lot more chatter than I thought possible from two little animals could be heard inside the house.
There was a lot of grabbing, jumping and flashing of teeth before the pair settled on the deck railing to discuss what had happened. I noticed they were sitting closer than usual so I assume this close encounter of the furred kind was not all negative.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Star Light, Moon Bright

Certainly one of the challenges of having astronomy as a hobby here in northeast Ohio is the weather. Winter skies are often clear—the more exciting for viewing. They can also be bitterly cold.
After plenty of warm, cloudy nights and a nearly planet-less November, then only limited action in December, amateur astronomers have to be ready for anything. The end of January and early February has seen the return of the Big Eight (and the planet formerly known as Pluto), along with some great moon sightings. And the outstanding winter constellations.
This morning was one of those really great opportunities for sky watching. Except for the facts that the temperature was three below zero—and I had to work my day job. Ug.
Heading toward the office an hour or so before sunrise, I could not help but stop along the way and just take in the spectacular scene. Much to the chagrin of a driver behind me (who must have been a banker or something, eager to get to the office and count his money), I pulled off the road opposite an open field. Often we watch Wild Turkeys, Red-tailed Hawks and White-tailed deer feeding there. This morning the field was a sea of shadows tossed haphazardly on the snow by the 18-day-old moon; lopsided and bright—like some people I know.
The view to the southwest showed me that Saturn was leading Luna down the ecliptic path as if he knew where he was going. A couple days earlier they had risen nearly hand-in-hard when she was full and he was in a slightly different orbit. Behind her, off to the southeast, Jupiter, trailed by the warrior Mars, flashed brighter than the traffic helicopter heading off to the morning’s first road disaster. Jupiter’s solid, steady light was a bright, cold blue, belying the plant’s warmer tones when seen through a telescope. I tried to imagine the positions of her four visible moons. Would the great red spot be visible this morning?
Bright Sirius was gone from my sky. I hungered for what the Orion cluster must look like in this clear sky and envied people in the west now looking up.
I read somewhere that the while the moon’s gravity is strong enough to pull oceans out of shape, it really doesn’t have any impact on humans. We’re too small, even though we are mostly water.
Bunk! The longer I stood there in the diminishing moonlight, looking up as more and more stars became visible to my widening pupils, the stronger I could feel Luna’s seductive pull, her whisper encouraging me to move in the opposite direction of my office.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

No Contest

As soon as I saw the competitors I knew how the contest was going to end. And it was not going to be pretty, either.
An American Goldfinch, in this corner, was calmly taking niger seed from the tube feeder. The single-digit temperatures did not seem to diminish its appetite, although there was no others of its kind in sight.
In that corner, about 10 feet away, perched Mr. Cooper’s Hawk. He, too, was looking for lunch and the goldfinch seemed to be his meal of choice.
When the goldfinch saw, or sensed, the presence of the hawk, it froze. The hawk, and I noodled this out by moving around inside the house to check his sight lines, was unsure if there was a bird on the feeder or not. The wind would ruffle the finch’s feathers and the hawk would perk up. The tube feeder, however, was swaying in the breeze, just enough to create a bit of uncertainty.
The goldfinch held its ground. No move is a good move in a situation like this. The standoff continued for several minutes. The hawk would occasionally turns its attention elsewhere until finally it launched itself from the branch and rocketed off in the direction of a flock of starlings.
Goldfinch wins!