Friday, December 19, 2008

The Joys of Winter

The pine tree next to and above our bird feeder array was genuflecting to the gods of winter. A mix of rain, ice and snow wrapped its needles in crystalline cocoons. Our usual suspects were feeding with a frenzy at all the feeders and on the ground. Nine species, one food source, no fighting. It seems the bad weather brings out the best birds—as well as the best in birds.
The squirrels, of which we have too many, though their variety this year is better than at other times, were challenged by the ice. Fitting that well-used definition of insanity, which also applies to fly fishing, they were doing the same thing, over and over, expecting different results. Grey, red, black and brown, the kaleidoscope of squirrel fur went up the trunk of the tree, out onto the branch and, zippppp! They would either grasp in desperation for the hook that held the feeder, or accept their plight and imitate their cousins, the flying squirrels, and try to make a graceful landing.
Because I had to go out, I was hoping the ice storm would end. Because I was enjoying one of nature’s greatest shows on ice, I was considering another cup of coffee.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I’m Turning You In

He didn’t look like a criminal. I knew his whereabouts, however, was important and needed to be reported to the proper authorities. He wasn’t even acting like a bad guy, yet, I knew it was my civic duty to report his location, even if I had to take time from my hectic schedule that included a nap and some catching up on that stack of magazines on the table.
He was hanging out with a bunch of his type, all wearing the same colors. They hadn’t spotted Susan and I as we used the car as a blind. Or, maybe they had spotted us and, because they’re such a rough bunch, ignored us knowing their superior numbers made it a certain victory for their side should we attempt anything funny—like a citizen’s arrest for example.
Susan lowered her window. Chilling wind and rain whipped her in the face. She raised her binocular and gave me the description. I took extensive notes on the back of a freebie parking pass from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. “It’s white,” she said softly as she strained to see through the lashing drizzle, trying to read the numbers. “Okay, got it. It’s 2E1R, black letters arranged vertically.”
Who was 2E1R? This much we could discern: He was a Canada Goose, most likely from the Common population (of which there are at least six recognizable populations), and he was big. He looked to be the full 45 inches in length and his wingspan of 60 inches fit the pattern.
The white collar on his neck looked like a soda can. In fact, the first time I saw one of these tags on a goose, way back in the last century when I was a beginning birder, it was red and I thought it was a soda can.
So there he was, grazing with about 300 of his kind. His tag, or collar, attracted about as much attention as a tattoo on a human these days. The more I looked at the goose and thought about him carrying that tag for life, the more it did seem like a tattoo, only this marking has a purpose attached; it’s not a wannabe fashion statement.
He’s part of someone’s research project and needed to be reported. The way to do it, should you encounter a goose with a collar or any bird with a band on its leg, is to go to, the Web site of Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, where data is collected. If you leave your e-mail address they might get back to you with information about the bird you’ve seen. I’m hoping to learn more about 2E1R. If I do, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, feed the birds. It’s cold out there.
And as for you 2E1R, you’re now in the computer, buster, so just watch your step, or where others might step.

Monday, December 01, 2008

… And Not in Hand

Previously, I wrote about the close encounter Susan and I had with Northern Saw-whet Owls in Ross County. Petting an owl on the back of the head is an experience the defies description. You really do have to be there.
There are, however, other aspects to birding that even when you are there you hardly believe your eyes. The occasional view of birds from the car can have its challenges, and its rewards. For example, after our night at the banding station near Chillicothe, plenty of adrenaline and less-than-perfect rest in the No-Tell Motel, we headed north for home in an early drizzle of rain and snow. We opted to stay off the interstate highways and see a bit of Ohio’s rural charm. It’s a great experience and the only known cure for white-line fever. Passing through places that are slightly more than wide spots in the road, yet are birth places to Civil War generals or presidents, gives you a sense of connection not found out there battling with 18-wheelers.
Heading north on State Route 83 in Holmes County, Susan suddenly shouted, “sandhills!” There, high on a hill in the middle of a mowed field stood four Sandhill Cranes. After some maneuvers with our Saturn that might have been more easily accomplished with a VW bug, we zipped up a curving, one-way drive, around some out buildings and reached the top of the hill. Rats! The birds were blocked by a rise in the field we had not noticed. Before the residents of the nursing home (as we discovered it to be) could figure out what we were up to, we were flashing down the drive, back out onto the highway and looking for another angle to see the cranes.
We spotted a semi-paved road that should lead to the top of the hill and a possible view from the other side. As we pulled into a parking area at the top I noticed the building was a kind of semi-official looking. Susan was out of the car, binocular in hand, before I had come to a full stop. I was digging out a camera (Why is the wide-angle lens always on when you need the telephoto?) trying not to drop any expensive glass, nor strangle myself with a binocular strap caught in the door.
I dashed through the trees where Susan had gone. There they were, about 50 yards away. Two adult and two juvenile Sandhill Cranes. They looked at us through the drizzle, looked at each other, and in that way birds have of communicating without saying anything, lifted off in unison.
The beauty and grace of the birds is, in part, because of their size. It takes some effort to get that huge body elevated. The huge wings unfolded, and because of our nearness, we could see the wings ripple rather than flap. When they do take flight, we humans can only stand and watch and wonder what it must be like.
We walked back to the car, chattering like a couple of sparrows about our close encounter. I glanced up at the building where we had parked—not exactly between the white lines. It was the Holmes County Jail. I wondered if the prisoners had seen us or the birds that so freely flew from perceived danger.

Bird in the Hand

I’m frequently asked why I’m a bird watcher. Well, “watcher” is hardly what it’s all about any more. This past weekend, Susan and I spent a spectacular evening/night in Chillicothe, Ohio, with Kelly Williams-Sieg, a master bird bander. Kelly’s working on her PhD, documenting (along with a network of others) the migration of Northern Saw-whet Owls through Ohio. These little creatures, about the size of the palm of your hand, are little known in this area. All that is changing. Kelly started banding the birds in 2003 at the Earl H. Barnhart Buzzard’s Roost Nature Preserve in Ross County—and the body of knowledge grows a bit every night from October to January.
Bird banding is a demanding sport. Banding owls takes that to another level. Although Kelly says the nip of a Northern Cardinal can be more painful than a saw-whet, the owl’s primary tool, its talons, demand a lot of respect.
When we weren’t climbing or descending the hills checking the nets, we sat and watched a glorious sky, filled with more stars than you believe possible. Orion, in his warrior garb, slowly lifted as we sat and talked about birds and this small piece of a much larger puzzle. The sky was so filled with stars on this near-moonless night, that all the regular constellations were a challenge to find. The 30-degree temperatures were not even an issue.
After a couple hours of checking the nets we hit pay dirt. Or rather a female saw-whet hit the net. This owl must like the Ohio countryside. It was a repeat. Kelly had banded this girl in October. The owl still got her check-up to see if she was gaining weight, etc.
It was amazing to see how the owl accepted all of our probing and photographing. She seemed as curious about us as we of her. When we finally released her I could not help wonder if, when she returns to her own kind, does she tell them the tale of her second alien abduction in as many months; and how she was examined by these friendly creatures with long limbs and no feathers …

Thursday, November 27, 2008

What’s For Dinner?

Humans have much to be thankful for on this day. Many of nature’s other critters do, also. I suppose the thing they are most grateful for—on any given day—is that they are not on the menu.
The Bald Eagle was spared the oven and the Wild Turkey was not. So, what does the eagle have for dinner on this day? Susan and I spent the morning at Burke Lakefront airport in downtown Cleveland, along with a few other intrepid birders. And while we all noted that our holiday behavior was normal, we wondered what those people on the three sailboats were thinking. We were there to check on a gorgeous visitor from the Arctic—a snowy owl. By its mottled gray coloring we’re assuming it’s youngster. Through the spotting scopes we could see its yellow eyes set in the white disk of its face, and its huge feet when it scratched behind its ears. It seemed little concerned about the airplanes that passed within a few feet of its position at the end of the runway.
Oh, this was supposed to be about eagles and Thanksgiving dinners. After checking the billions of Bonaparte’s Gulls at the nearby marina, hoping for something out of the ordinary, we spotted an eagle heading straight at us from the vicinity of downtown. As it circled, gaining altitude, we realized it had something in its talons. It eventually passed almost directly over us. We could see it was preparing dinner as it moved. Feathers from its prey fluttered away in a continuous stream. It turned slowly, not unlike a Boeing 747, and came in for a landing in the grass at the end of the runway, almost opposite our position. It only pecked at its meal and appeared to be resting. Then, with great effort, it took off, heading east. We debated what was on the menu this day for the Bald Eagle. Maybe a duck; maybe a pigeon. Judging from the amount of blood we could see on its massive beak, we hoped it did not have too large of a family to feed when it got to where it was going.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Making Good in America

Eloquence goes a long way in elevating one to national prominence—as the recent presidential election has shown. Along with the eloquence, you of course need substance. A good haircut and fancy suit help, too.
This thought ran through my mind the other day after a close encounter of the feathered kind. I was hiking a remote ridge section in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It’s deeply wooded and even with most of the leaves gone from the trees, you still have to look up to see the sky. Sightlines are obstructed by huge beech and oak trees.
All the usual sentinels of the forest, Blue Jays and crows, announced my presence. My unscientific research indicates that other forest dwellers don’t pay much heed to these vociferous species. Might be a case of them crying wolf—or human—too many times.
Then I heard a different call. Kind of high-pitched, squeaky sound with no specific rhythm I could discern. It was more of a chirping cackle. I could see two shapes, rather large shapes, coming toward me at tree-top level. Their erratic flight pattern made them look like crows. They were way too large for crows. As they passed 30 feet overhead I felt like I was looking at the underside of a couple Boeing 747s. Their distinctive white heads and tails meant these could only be adult Bald Eagles—the symbol of our nation.
They’re not terribly eloquent, but damn handsome creatures. So, why did Ben Franklin promote the Wild Turkey to be our national symbol? It might have been the turkey’s gobbling eloquence versus the eagle’s squeaky, timid voice. It certainly wasn’t the turkey’s good looks. I suspect, however, it had more to do with the turkey’s flavor. Franklin used a lot of turkeys in his experiments with electricity and cooked plenty of them in the process. And in true American political fashion, you always promote those whom you like best.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Hard Water

I’ve been accused of projecting a bit too much humanity into reports of birdlife. Anthropomorphism is the big word for it. Silliness is what others have called it. A bird’s a bird and it has two purposes in life: Eat and not get eaten, and keep the genes moving forward. Much like a lot of people I know.
Sometimes, a bird or mammal just looks or does something that reminds us of ourselves. Or, maybe it’s the other way around. Sometimes humans take on characteristics of the animals. I recall, scrawled on the wall of a shelter someplace along the Appalachian Trail the words of a philosopher: Just because we live with the animals doesn’t mean we have to act like them.
All of this is prelude to what I saw a couple of Blackcapped Chickadees doing the other day. I was leaving the house early in the morning and is my want, checked the bird feeders. I noticed two chickadees standing on the rim of the bird bath across from each other. They were staring down at the water, then looking at each other. This went on for a couple minutes. One tentatively reached out a foot as if he was about to check the temperature. I realized the water was frozen. I had forgotten to plug in the heater the night before. These must be new kids on the northeast Ohio block.
When they left I went out and plugged in the heater so they’ll have softer water for the rest of the season. I was reminded of another piece of wisdom from the walls of a shelter on the Appalachian Trail: Watch what you eat and where you step.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Signs of the Time

I had stopped the car to scan a large flock of Canada Geese. I guess I should have gotten a bit further off the road. Maybe I’ll get one of those bumper stickers: This Car Stops For No Apparent Reason. I’m A Bird Watcher. Anyway, no damage. Only a couple of pissed off people who should have left for their appointed rounds a few minutes earlier.
I was scanning through the flock of geese that was technically outside the bounds of Cuyahoga Valley National Park, although the geese probably didn’t know that, nor much care. There were about 50 of them in an open field next to the Ohio Canal, under the I-480 bridge.
The uncommon Cackling Goose has recently been reported in this area and I’m determined to find one this season. They run with your basic Canada Goose and look quite similar. The big difference is really small. Well, the Cackling Goose is small; about half the size of the Canadas we see in this part of the world. The Canada Goose is more variable than many people realize with at least six different populations that vary in size.
But the Cackling variety stands out because of its smaller stature and, some say darker shading.
I was out of my car, now, looking at the geese and feeling my heart pump a bit faster as I spotted some smaller birds! Arrgggg! Gulls mixed in with the geese. That’s what my have tricked my subconscious into halting the car. I kept looking until my binocular landed on something really out of place and time. Two guys across the way, putting up a sign for Christmas trees! Come on guys, it’s only November 6 and already we’re going to have Christmas trees on the corner? I once heard a field trip leader tell the novice bird watchers in the group that the great thing about birding was that you can always expect the unexpected. Ain’t that the truth.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

When Rain Isn’t

I knew what was approaching as soon as I heard the sound. People who spend time in the woods are more in tune with rain than those who do not. We outsiders more often hear it coming; insiders see it coming. In a good forest you can hear rain approach from a mile away. You can hear it sneaking by you, hidden by the canopy. Like the bears, deer and other creatures. You know it’s there. It’s part of the experience.
Depending on whether you’re a casual walker or a serious hiker, you respond differently to the threat of rain. If you’re just out for a stroll in the woods, your reaction might be to stop, look, then high-tail it for the car. Backpackers, meanwhile, never break their stride. Their minds are active reviewing options. Like, stop and put on the pack cover like you should have done earlier, get wet ‘cause you know you won’t shrink (and could use a bit of cleaning), or mentally calculating how long until you reach the next shelter.
I glanced up and noticed the early morning sky was that hard-to-believe shade of blue. Sun was streaming through the branches ahead like the beams of thousands of flashlights. Yet, there was that unmistakable sound of rain slowly coming up behind me. I turned to see if I’d be getting wet—well not “if” so much as to what degree I’d be getting wet.
Fooled again! Leaves were cascading from the sky in a red, orange and gold shower. It was the wind loosing dry droplets of beech, oak, maple and hickory. All around me the leaves were falling, not in that floaty, helter-skelter way they usually do, but in a quiet, ordered manner. A perfect, uninterrupted flow from branch to bed. Orderly lines of color against a blue background.
The breeze passed over me just as a shower would have. I held my mouth open trying to catch one of the golden beech leaves like I do with snow flakes. No luck. My body seemed to emit some invisible force that shunted the leaves past and to their designated spot on the forest floor.
It rained for 15 or 20 minutes. I picked up my daypack, now with its icing of leaves, and headed on in the direction of the wind.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Wait Until this Year

Writer John Gierach noted that anyone who starts a fish story by telling you how beautiful the scenery was, probably didn’t catch any fish. Well, let me tell you how gorgeous the Cuyahoga Valley is at this time of year. Our first day of steelheading was more about driving and occasionally waving a stick at the water, than about catching fish.
Maybe I should back up and offer a few definitions and some backgrounder. In this neck of the woods, as temperatures drop and rain comes in sheets rather than droplets, some people hunker down and darn near hibernate for the next six or seven months. There is a small percentage who embrace the evil weather—wish for worse, even. We call ourselves steelheaders. It has nothing to do with the structure of our heads. It’s about the species of trout we do battle with. These fish, with their 2K brains, and us with enough money invested in tackle to bale out the Bush administration, will try to out wit each other for the next four or five months.
Steelhead (a form of rainbow trout) relax for a few years, swimming around in Lake Erie, trying not to be eaten or caught. When conditions are just right, meaning fresh, cold water in the streams, in they come with reproduction on their minds. They go at it like teenagers; lots of thrashing about without accomplishing much other than bragging rights. Our stream bottoms are not suited for the egg-laying process. The steelies don’t know that. With steelhead, reproduction is more about attitude than actuality.
And although it was a bit early in the season, cool weather and a flurry of emails between fishing buddy Tom and myself, filled us both with false hope. I volunteered to scout river conditions after last week’s rain. Looked good. The local fishing Web sites weren’t encouraging. We rationalized that away with the notion that these guys were not being forthcoming. They had hopes of keeping those first big fish all to themselves. Our steelhead fishery has improved so much that even catching a 30-inch-fish won’t get your picture in the papers.
Following the email came phone calls. Eventually, we settled on a time and meeting place. The fishing trip was taking on the trappings of a small invasion. We were discussing strategies and tactics like a couple of politicians.
Morning of Fish Day, while taking care of the things I should have taken care of the night before, my cell phone started chirping. It was Tom. Slight wrinkle, but nothing major. We were adding another troop to the invasion force. He’d swing by John’s house and still be at the appointed spot on time. Fifteen minutes later my cell phone started to make my leg vibrate, which only induces panic with me. Tom again. Another wrinkle. This one more serious.
He’d been busted going through a school zone by the slowest-ticket-writing cop in three counties. He used a lot of words I’d rather not repeat. Tom’s discomfort provided about all the material John and I would need for a day of cracking wise, as misfortune to one in the party tends to do with fly fishers.
After what seemed like an endless search for the right spot on the river to start, we settled on a spot that had a couple other fishers already in place. I also noted that we had about run out of river since I could see the mouth and the lake beyond if I leaned out far enough.
Well, suffice to say, we spent a pleasant day, driving around to a couple of rivers and fishing in some really scenic spots. We ended the day with virtually every cliché we could muster: That’s why they call it fishing and not catching, it’s not always about catching fish, a great day to just stand in the water …
Unlike our hapless baseball team that every year, usually on opening day, says, “Wait’ll next year,” we can at least look forward to November and say, “Wait’ll this year.”

Monday, October 13, 2008

Coyote and Roadrunner—Not exactly

Beep, beep! Maybe it was because we had just spent a weekend with the grandkids, however, the whole scene had a cartoon ambience about it. I was hiking along an unnamed trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park that we call the Ridge Walk. It’s a great hike, off the beaten path except for the occasional dog walker.
I was standing in an open, small meadow-like area examining the sparrows working over the various seed pods. At this time of the year you have to check every little brown bird you see, just in case one will be something special, like a LaConte’s Sparrow, or maybe a Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow.
I noticed a dark, roundish blob moving through the high grass and waited until I could determine it was a Wild Turkey. I don’t know what else it could have been, but you never know. It worked it’s way toward me as I stood as still as possible. In that wild animal way, it somehow sensed my presence and jerked its head up with a surprised look that only a wild turkey can produce.
Off it raced in the direction of the nearest safety of trees. I don’t take offense at this when wild critters dash off as soon as they spot me. Their goal in life is not to be eaten so they err on the side of safety. If we humans adopted that same philosophy, not to be eaten, we’d probably never speak with investment bankers.
Anyway, I watch Tom turkey high-tail it into the woods. Just as I was about to go back to studying the sparrows, I see the turkey coming back at me at a high rate of speed. Only now, close on his heels was a Coyote! About 50 feet into the clearing the Coyote spotted me, screeched to a halt and turned back toward the woods. The turkey, figuring I was less likely to have him for dinner, dashed past within 25 feet, making a beeline for the trees on the other side of the meadow.
All the activity scared up a lot of sparrows and a lot of laughs, for me at least.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

A Bird in the Hand …

It was one of those fine, crisp mornings in late September. The kind of day that reminds us of why we live in northeast Ohio. I was hiking along the Hike & Bike Trail in northern Summit County.
An impressive array of birds kept my walking pace to a minimum. I counted eight Eastern Towhees on the move south, chipping as they went as if only one guy had the road map and they needed to stay in contact with him. I saw my first White-crowned Sparrow of the fall season. The first surprise bird of the day, a juvenile Northern Mocking Bird, popped onto a nearby snag. Great spot in this part of the county. I’ve seen the occasional adult in the area, but never a juvenile. Does this mean they’re nesting here about?
The second surprise bird was at the other end of the life spectrum. Lying in the middle of the bike path, toes pointing at the cloudless sky, was what I first took to be a warbler species. Well, at least it’s something to add to my Dead List, I thought. I picked it up and realized I had an identification challenge to deal with. Hmmm. Confusing fall warbler, for sure. After a few minutes of contemplation I bagged the bird for further examination at home.
As I was heading back, I ran into Ann and Dwight Chasar, birders extraordinaire. After a brief chat I pulled out my specimen for an expert opinion. Hmmm, was the consensus. I suggested I back off 25 feet and they look at it through binoculars. This close-up examination was creating confused fall birders. Too much information when you can examine them in the hand, I thought.
We three more-or-less agreed that it’s probably a Red-eyed Vireo. Since Susan volunteers with Andy Jones at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, preparing the museum’s bird-study collection, I’ve turned the bird over to her to give to Andy for the final identification. Dr. Andy goes beyond examining a bird in the hand. He gets into the DNA of the matter.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Buck Stops …

Actually, the buck stops any place he damn well chooses in October. For example, I was hiking down the northeastern loop of the Carriage Trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park this morning, just minding my business and that of any other creature I happened to see.
So this morning I stopped to watch a Pileated Woodpecker destroying a fallen tree. He had the chips flying like he was getting paid for the job. I heard the leaves rustle behind me and over my shoulder saw two does walking, cautiously, in my direction. Around here, whitetail deer are as plentiful as, well, as whitetail deer. It’s not uncommon in a four-mile hike to see a dozen or more deer, grazing or doing whatever deer do when they think no one is watching.
Since no one was listening I said to these two, “’Morning ladies.” They halted, looked at each other, then looked back and to their right.
There stood a huge buck, looking at me. Through my binoculars I counted eight points on each antler. I’m not sure how they count the points when hunters talk about an X-point buck, however, this dude had a rack! I don’t want to get too deeply into personification here, however, I had the distinct feeling this guy was looking at me as if I was looking at his lady friends with something other than a naturalist’s curiosity.
My 2k brain was running the options available to me in case this guy wanted to make a point—or two. Climbing a tree seemed the only thing available. I opted for a stare-down. I may have read somewhere that staring at a wild animal is not the best plan of attack. But, heck, it had worked with squirrels and chipmunks, why not this big guy?
He snorted a couple times and the does changed their trajectory to pass by further to the left. He watched them move on up into the trees, frequently turning to see what I was going to do. Since he looked away first I declared myself the winner of the stare-down and wished him a tolerable day as I walked on down the path.
It’s that time of the year when bucks stop here and there and everywhere.

Friday, September 26, 2008


Hi. I’m Clyde and I’m a bird lister. In England we’re called Twitchers.
I’ve tried to break the addiction several times, but things like that Brown Thrasher this morning keep popping up and, well, off I go. Or even worse, like last week while vacationing in Arizona/Utah I saw two life birds. Lifers! How could I not add them to my list?
I almost broke the habit in 2007. Well-meaning friends, essentially non-listers I might note, chide me about how keeping a list of the birds I see interrupts the flow of the experience. It’s seeing, watching, learning, and getting to know the birds better that is what birding should be about.
Hmmm. I’m not looking for a date with any of these chickadees; just another notch on my binocular strap will do.
But in 2007 I upgraded my computer and the program I’ve been using for years was no longer usable. Uggg. Great time to kick the habit friends said. Let it go. Cold turkey is also something to put on your life list.
Okay, said I, I’ll give it a shot. It wasn’t easy. Secretly I surfed the Web looking for a program that might run on my Intel Mac. I found one that sorta worked, but was dreadfully (for me) tough to use. And it required an annual subscription fee.
Based on the rather flimsy excuse that I needed another computer, I ventured over to the dark side and bought a PC-based notebook. Slick little machine—and I could get some birding software …
And since I had the software for the little notebook, why not add it to the iMac since it has that capability?
I sunk deeper and deeper to where now I’m at the point of waiting for some new software to arrive since I found the previous program cumbersome. And besides, this new program has a module that allows me to keep records on my PDA, then download them to my computer! I’ll be listing away and people will think I’m trying to look like a teenager and am just texting the person standing next to me. Cool.
I realize listing has become another life-long habit—like always for the Democrat, so I needed the perfect zinger for my friends when they see me sneaking my notepad out of my jacket for no other reason than to note that Swainson’s Thrush singing in the bush. How about, “Hey, it’s like golf. If you don’t keep score yer only practicing.”

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Earthworm Migration

Do earthworms migrate? Good question. Okay, not as pressing (for some) as to whether we should reward the people who bungled us into this current financial crises with $700 billion or some lesser amount, but an important question nonetheless.
I’ll have to ask our naturalist buddy, Wendy. One takeaway lesson you always get when hiking with Wendy is to look down as much as you look up. (For more about earthworms and virtually everything else outside the four walls of you life, check out
I was minding my own, and the rest of Nature’s business this morning, hiking the Old Carriage Trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I watched a scene straight out of JJ Audubon, or maybe Robert Bateman) as a family of four Pileated Woodpeckers hammered and chatted away on a backlit tree. I helped several Carolina Wrens, Blackcapped Chickadees and their associated Tuffted Titmouse friends make enough noise to wake an owl or whatever was in the bush that had them all upset. I never saw the reason for their pique. They all took off and I assume it was a snake.
After a couple miles on the trail I turned uphill and realized there was a herd (I don’t know what else to call it) of either big earthworms or small night crawlers) heading downhill. Hundreds. I bobbed and weaved and tried not to step on any of the slow movers. It was a shady spot on the trail. The ground was so dry it had cracked in spots.
Now my basic instinct as a fisher told me to grab as many of these critters as possible. Then I remembered I was a fly fisher, often a dry-fly fisher, and live-bait fishing was a thing I was suppose to disparage. But these were really nice, juicy looking worms …
I posted myself behind a tree to see if any of the birds in the forest were interested. No takers. So what in the world, at least this part of the world, were these worms doing?
Another unanswered question and one of the reasons we keep going back into the woods.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Bringing It All Back Home

Having survived the crowds last week at the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park on our Great Western Swing Scouting Trip, I decided to take a walk around my own backyard today.
In my case, the backyard is the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Thanks taxpayers. The great thing about hitting the trails in the park on a Wednesday is that there’s virtually no one else around. You get to see what a park is all about—a place for the animals, not the humans. I walked nearly two miles on the first trail before I saw two people coming the other way, deep in discussion about eating fat and why it’s good for you. I wanted to tell them to check that theory with the chickadees who were also deep in their discussion—probably about the quality of sunflower seeds this year.
Further along the trail I crossed over a stream (okay, a tiny creek) that I’ve seen many time. Only now it was crowded with fish. As a fly fisher I should be able to identify these critters. All I know is they were not trout. I think they were black-nosed dace. There were hundreds of them. I realized they were probably always there, except when there was heavy traffic on the trail.
As I neared where I planned to take a shortcut and head for home, I looked into the remnants of the Ohio-Erie canal. I realized the moss-covered bumps on the logs were really turtles. From one spot I counted 56 of various sizes from ravioli to basketball. All uniformly green with duckweed on their heads, necks and backs. For five minutes or so I discussed choosing vice presidential running mates with the turtles. You can do that sort of thing when no one else is around.
Heading up the steep slope that would lead me back to civilization, I spooked three white-tail deer that had bedded down for the day. The buck, still in velvet, was not happy. He snorted and pawed the ground, just to let me know who was boss of this patch.
Somehow the hill had gotten steeper than I remembered and during my second rest stop, Blue Jays rousted a Cooper’s Hawk that flew straight at me, eye level. It was probably my imagination, but I swear I felt the wind from its wings as it passed overhead.
There’s a reason national parks carry that designation. They all have something to offer you’ll find no place else. Ours might not have mile-deep canyons or soaring hoodoos. We have just basic peace and tranquility, especially on a Wednesday morning.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Click, Click, Click

I’m currently sharing a room with a click beetle. The only reason I know it’s a click beetle is because our naturalist friend, Wendy, told me about click beetles a couple years ago. Now I can impress others with my vast knowledge of insects. I thought those clicky things in the night were frogs of some sort. Not so.
Click, click, click
Now, I’ve never seen a click beetle and this one is no exception. I should look up his picture on the Web so I know what I’m dealing with here.
How he (I assume it’s a he because it’s sneaky and noisy) got into my hotel room I know not. It’s okay. He has stayed in the same spot for three days now, moving back and forth someplace in the drapery track. It’s a friendly sound. Makes me feel like I’m out of doors.
As luck would have it, I’m in Phoenix where it’s so hot you can not go outside. You live in the air conditioned bubble and bitch about the heat with other people who don’t go outside, either. So bringing in a bit of the outside is welcome.
I’ve managed to get out a do a bit of birding in the early mornings when things cooled to 90 degrees (click, click, click) and the birds head for water spots.
It’s interesting that I’m back in Arizona at the near-end of the south-bound migration. In May we were out here for the north-bound birds. I’m probably seeing the kids of the adults I saw four short months ago.
Not much action. A few Black-chinned Hummingbirds moving through have been a treat. Plenty of Verdins around, a bird we did not see in the spring.
Probably the highlight of the week has been the largest covey of Gamble’s Quail I’ve ever seen. There are easily 50 birds in this group, ranging in size from golf-balls with toothpick legs, on up to full adult. They scamper ahead of me as I walk (against the rules I proudly add) the golf cart paths at this luxury resort in Scottsdale.
They remind me of characters in silent movies that never have the smarts to get off the tracks as a train is bearing down on them. Of course, if the quail, like the guy in the silent movie, did scamper to the side and into the bushes, it would take a lot of drama out of my life.
Click, click, click.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A Good Omen, Perfect Punctuation

We were doing our best to burn off the day. The sun was doing its part. The sky had turned more shades of yellow-red than battered left over Olympic banners. The burning question, not to be confused with burning issues, was whether we’d make it to the pond before dark? And if we did, would the birds still be there?
In this case the birds were three Wood Storks, a species more at home in the swamps of Florida than the wetlands of mid-Ohio. How did they get here? They have wings so I guess that answers the question. And they were juveniles. Put teenagers together with transportation and you’re liable to get anything.
The first good sign we had was a bird that stumped Susan and I for a few seconds. When you’ve been fortunate to bird around the globe as we have, we expect the unexpected in unsuspecting places. But near Zanesville, Ohio, an all-black crow-sized bird with bright white tail feathers gives you pause.
After a bit of lip flapping and firm knowledge that we weren’t slowing down our mission—to see the Wood Storks—we quickly realized we had just seen an American Crow with white tail feathers. It was one of those birding things that make you say, “humph.”
Driving through the wonderful habitat of decidedly rural Coshocton County, we had to stop to check out some great shorebird habitat. Sure enough, a Willet was feeding on the far side of a pond. Belted Kingfishers were diving from several trees; a House Wren popped up to see what we were doing; Cedar Waxwings were hawking bugs; and after a bit of effort we coaxed a Nashville Warbler out of the bushes.
On to the storks. As we topped a rise in the road we first spotted some humans, binoculars and scopes in hand, gazing down a slope into a small oxbow of a pond. The three storks appeared bleached white against the darkening foliage. The only thing that seemed to upset them was a possessive Great Blue Heron. Some minor squabbling ensued. The storks bought off the heron with a fish or two and the critters settled down.
As we were packing to leave, Vernon Miller, the Amish man who found the birds a week earlier happened by. He proudly told the story for the umpteenth time of how he spotted the birds, called a friend to confirm the identification, and how the friend posted the information to the Ohio Birds Listserv (
It was nearly dark when we stopped to find an errant water bottle that had rolled under the seats. Susan found the bottle and shouted look! As a birder you don’t ask where or why or what. You just point your nose in the direction of the person making the call. An adult Bald Eagle swooshed over our heads. Perfect ending to a perfect day.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Seeing is Believing

We stood, gazing back in time at the stars all around us. We were on the edge of the universe. It was a place astronomers had gathered for a half century to peer into the past, hoping to predict the future. And while Kitt Peak, Arizona is hallowed ground for astronomers, it is also a marvelous spot for birders.
Susan and I were with a group of like-minded individuals from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. We were in Southeast Arizona to explore the heavens as well as the flora and fauna. Among our leaders were Andy Jones, curator of ornithology, Joe DeRocher, astronomer, and Naturalist Harvey Webster. Trust me, nothing got by us, from the rings of Saturn to the rings on the neck of the Elegant Trogon, to the rings on the tail of the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake.
What struck me as we looked out across the endless miles of space and land was how birding is connected to so many other aspects of natural history. Another thing that struck me was how people asked, “What do you expect to get from this trip?”
Expectations when you go birding (or fishing for that matter) can often lead to bitter disappointment. Better to set goals, like, don’t get hurt, or find the Flame-colored Tanager. Don’t expect not to get hurt. Don’t expect to see the tanager. The expectation, if there has to be one, is to see what nature has to offer.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Beginner's Luck

Let’s see, when last I left my blog I was looking at fish in a stream in California. As a friend and reader reminded me not too long ago, “You haven’t written anything for more than a year.”
True enough, and while blogging can be a mixed blessing (sort of like children, or being born good looking instead of rich) it is fun. Now I’m back.
My problem (Old people have problems. Young people have issues.) was that shortly after that trip to California in 2007, my world began to tilt. Then, on the night of a blue moon in May 2007, the unthinkable happened and things got topsy turvey. While trying to find the right words to tell my boss I was quitting, he called and offered me a promotion! Talk about a conundrum. I made the big error of not asking, “how much more money?” before I said “yes.” I promised him a year to see how it would all work out.
Now, closing in 14 months, I finally have my beak far enough above water to be able to take a breath—and get back to blogging. It’ll take a while to get back into my stride, so hang with my faithful readers. Thanks for asking.
And to sort of pick up where I left off—with fishing—a short note about a trip to the stream a couple days ago. Fishing buddy Tom (retired and looking for more playmates) has been talking about chasing some smallmouth bass at a secret spot on the Cuyahoga River. Anyone who has not been left mentally impaired by those great days of the late 1960s remembers the Cuyahoga as the river that caught on fire. There were songs about it; now there’s even a microbrewery beer available celebrating that infamous day of environmental history.
In any case, we’d be fishing far up stream from the historical footnote place. (In truth, the river runs quite clean these days, fodder for another blog.)
Tom and I, and his long-time buddy Jon hit the stream early in the morning. Not so early for a guy who still has a real job, however, it was early for those retirees. The guys gave me the lay of the land, stream, actually. My experience with other fishers, me included, is to put the new guy off in some direction so as not to interrupt the real fishing spots. I just wrote it off to paying my dues. Jon headed up stream at a pace. Tom selected a little island to fish around, and I waded downstream to a likely looking spot. Karma was with the nubie. Before Tom had a fly on the water, and while he was still within ear and eye shot, I was hooked up with the first smallmouth of the day.
Right, beginners luck after about 40 years of fly fishing.