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 …