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.