Wednesday, April 29, 2009

All’s Well That Ends

Our spur-of-the-moment, impromptu, fly-fishing trip to the East Coast, which we had been planning for about a year, got off to a rather auspicious beginning. Some whacky directions from the GPS unit I set up the day before proved the theory of “garbage in, garbage out.” Four days later the trip ended with a dead car battery. In between, things got real interesting.
All in all, for a fishing trip, the birding was wonderful.
We had been invited to a friend’s home on Cape Ann, Massachusetts. This drop-dead gorgeous spot sits right on the ocean, Ipswich Bay to be more precise. It carries the name Red Rock, because of the huge granite boulder that seems to anchor the entire spit of land where the classic thirties-era beach house rests.
We’ve been there before. In fact, we took our wedding trip there a decade ago. More than one striped bass has been caught and released in the surrounding waters. I’d not fished the salt for nearly three years, so I was looking forward to this trip. I spent the previous week tying fancy new flies for the occasion. Had I known one of those 2/0 Clousers was going to whack me in the back, I might have created something smaller.
Motoring south from Manchester, New Hampshire, Susan and I chattered away, not paying a lot of attention to road signs because: A, We knew where we were going, and B, we had the GPS. When the skyline of Boston loomed ahead, we knew something was amiss. Fortunately, Susan was driving and exited as soon as we realized we were going the wrong way. She stopped at the first convenience store so I could ask directions. When I had to explain to the lady behind the counter what a map was, I figured we were in real trouble.
We found our route, in spite of all the nasty things the GPS unit was saying and thinking.
Fishing on Thursday was a bit less than impossible. On Friday it got worse. The wind provided a gentle breeze of 30 knots, with gusts hitting 50 knots that could rip the flesh from your face. Not a chance of making a cast. But I tried, anyway. Two days into a four-day trip and I had hardly gotten a hook in the water.
Saturday the wind dropped and I headed for a favorite spot—after I figured out the tide movement thing. When you live in Ohio, all you have to know about Tide is that it comes in a box and you do the laundry with it. When you’re fishing in the ocean, you have to learn about tidal movement.

At “the spot” I noted that there was hardly another fisherman around. Two guys talking, not fishing, about 200 yards down stream. Not a good sign. I stepped off the bank to head out to the deeper water when I had my first near-death experience of the trip (neither gale force winds, getting lost, nor an over-priced lunch, count). What appeared to be relatively solid sand was muck with the texture of quicksand. Fortunately I was still near to the stream bank and was able to extract myself. Damage done? The Earth had reclaimed the soul of one wading boot and had ripped the other to the point where I’ll have to pry it off and get replacements. I think I also managed to add a couple inches to my overall height. Talk about something that sucks!
The two guys from down the way were now standing nearby. (Had I been screaming for help?) They were friendly locals and suggested I follow them to a better beach for some surf fishing. “Something wrong with the bottom here,” one of them offered. No kidding?
Saturday ended with high tide and a beach full of running kids and dogs. The chances of hooking either were good, however it might make for some bad PR for fisherman.
Back at the house, the simple task of disassembling my rod proved daunting. Sections two and three were jammed and were not about to be taken apart. I tried every trick in my near 40-year-old book of fly fishing knowledge to no avail. I was without computer access so Googling my plight was not possible. I called the good folks at L.L. Bean. They have a great fly fishing help line, 800-347-4552, that stays open until 10 p.m. for guys like me. I talked with anyone and everyone available. We tried every possible trick and still the rod would not separate. Well, finally it did. You don’t want to hear how. It’s too painful to even think about if you’re a fly fisher. Suffice to say, repairs are in order …
In hopes of cheering me, we opted for a lobster dinner. In this part of the world the lobster is relatively inexpensive—and alive. To get dinner on the table, a fight to the death must ensue. If you’re lucky, the guy with the biggest pinchers ends on the plate.
On Sunday, as I stared at my broken rod, I couldn’t help but think of what an ideal fishing day it would be—for someone. We switched gears, or gear, and went birding. Rewards were aplenty with great views of Savannah Sparrows, Brant, Long-tailed ducks, two species of scoters, and a couple of Blue Grosbeaks, particularly rare in this place and at this time.
Monday morning broke with the promise of another beautiful day. The downside was we had to head for Cleveland and our wonderful hostess, Cindy, had to get to work. What was beginning to look like a sad-faced good-by turned into a smiley faced opportunity. The good/bad news was that the battery in her car was deader than the lobster we had for dinner the night before. The fishing road trip got a reprieve and extension!

Did I mention that not a fish was caught? Or even seen? We did, however, log 59 species of birds, using only about seven gallons of gasoline.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

It’s Justa Sparrow

Here’s one of those questions to which there is probably no answer: Why is it that a person with no binoculars and the ability to accurately identify only two birds—American Robin and Fried Chicken—feels compelled to educate the equipment-laden birder? And the corollary is: Why do I take it personally?
I was peacefully observing an outstanding alternate-plumaged White-throated Sparrow this morning along the trail when I was accosted, well that’s too strong of a word, bothered, by Mr. Knosmorthnu. He was out walking his dog. At least I think it was a dog. It looked more like a creampuff on a string. One of those dogs that appears to have run into a wall going top speed. If it was a kid, the grandmother would constantly be saying, “go blow your nose!”
Mr. K: “Whatcha lookin’ at?”
Okay, I admit, I was a bit high and pumped on adrenaline. It’s that time of the year. A birder’s nerves are on edge; every sense turned up to full-tilt-boogie. Figuring that I had the perfect opportunity to educate this chap, I said, “Well, it’s a …
Mr. K: “Oh, I see it. It’s justa sparrow.”
He started to yank on Puffy, or Muffy’s string and grumbled something about rain. I was not ready to let him go as yet. This dude certainly needed some education. I pushed on.
“It’s a White-throated Sparrow,” I said with my know-it-all authoritarian voice.
Mr. K: “Who cares? They’re all alike. Seen one ya seen ‘em all. Brown birds.”
I couldn’t help myself. I said, “Yeah, just like dogs. All alike.”
He gave me a strange look and pulled the dog in closer to his side. I don’t know if he was protecting the dog or guarding himself. He quickly moved on. I noticed he glanced over his shoulder at me several times.
I wanted to tell him sparrows are not all alike. Depending on how you count, we have at least 20 species in this area with sparrow in their name. Toss in the juncos, towhees and other relatives and their family reunion can be quite an interesting, and colorful event.
With all the positive energy flowing, I told myself it’s okay; he’s outside enjoying the trail. And he's paying his taxes so others can enjoy the trail, too.
I should have said, up front, it's never justa sparrow.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

What’s Old is New Again

The Cuyahoga Valley National Park has a lot of hidden treasures. Many you have to get off the trail, or at least out of your car, to find. Some are so obvious that thousands of people drive by without giving them a second , maybe a first, thought. One I rediscovered is Wilson’s Mill, located on Canal Road in Walton Hills.
This feed mill is a working operation, unlike many of the “exhibits” in the park, which are only relics to educate people on how life was 150 years ago. We stopped in at the mill a few days ago so that Susan could buy some supplies for the bird-feeding stations where she works. While she was talked with the owners, I roamed around the interior.
I’ve read someplace that there are 60 million people in the U.S. who consider themselves birders, or at least feed wild birds sometime during the year. From the looks of the interior of Wilson’s Mill, I think about half that number must buy supplies here. Then there are supplies for virtually all the other two- and four-legged creatures.
The cramped quarters inside this building, built in either 1855 or 1853 depending on which historical text you read, is lined with bird feeders and paraphernalia. I tried counting the number of bird feeders hanging from the ceiling and gave up when I hit 100.
There are no straight aisles inside the store. Neither are there any software hands in the hardware store, as John Gorka says. These are working people. The kind of guys who put a 50-pound bag of seed on each shoulder and carry it out to your car for you—with a smile and a thanks attached.
The mill’s original name was Alexander’s Mill, built to grind wheat into flour. It was built at Lock 37 on the canal and used water from the nearby Cuyahoga River to drive (and here history is a bit clouded as to the style of power generator) the grid stones. It probably used the typical over-shot under-shot style waterwheel. The mill converted to turbines in the late 1800s. This was the last mill in Cuyahoga County to use water for power, and continues as the only mill in the county.
Pieces and parts of those old turbines are still in place, mostly for nostalgic reasons. As I watched the sun come up over the eastern ridge of the valley one morning, I looked at one of those structures and could not help but think that maybe its time has come again: Free power to the people.

Give me the warm power of the Sun.
Give me the steady flow
of the waterfall.
Give me the spirit of living things
As they return.

Thanks, Doobie Brothers and James Taylor.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Birding Blues

Birders in Ohio and surrounding states have got themselves into a lather this week with confirmation of a Mountain Bluebird in our state. The cooperative bird (at this writing) is located near Oak Openings, not far from Toledo and an outstanding birding location. People from all over have been flocking to the spot to see this gorgeous critter; only the second time it’s been recorded in our state.
Susan and I kicked around the idea of going over to see it, however, common sense prevailed and we spent the day closer to home. We’ve both seen the Mountain Bluebird in its natural habitat, and the thought of 10 hours in the car on such a pretty day seemed a bit daunting.
We found all the shades of blue in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, our 33,000 acre backyard. We first stopped at the Beaver Marsh where Tree Swallows have returned in abundance. Their iridescence sparkled as they seined the air for bugs we could not see.
Our next stop was the heron rookery on Bath Road. Things were on the quiet side, compared with only a week ago when the Great Blue Herons were pairing off, gathering nesting material and, I suppose, catching up on local gossip. Today we watched one clever male extract a stick from a jumble of grape vines and offer it to his mate. The stick was apparently to her liking because she tucked it into the nest.

We ended the day with a hike around the Bath Nature Preserve. People have already been reporting Eastern Meadowlarks from this spot, however, we could find none. Our attention was drawn, time and again, to the brilliant Eastern Bluebirds.
Blue skies and blue birds. Certainly days like this are a cure for the blues.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Finding Closure

Back in December I wrote about a Canada Goose Susan and I spotted during our day of counting birds as part of the Greater Akron Audubon Society's participation in the Annual Christmas Count. The bird was tagged 2E1R with a neck collar the size of a soda can.
Who was 2E1R? We now know, thanks to the good folks at the U.S. Geological Survey ( These are the people you report banded birds to.
What we knew then was that he (an assumption we made about sex that turned out to be correct) 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.
Yesterday I received a Certificate of Appreciation from USGS for helping it with its North American bird banding program. Turns out that 2E1R was tagged June 23, 2003 in Willoughby, Ohio, by Nathan Strickler of the Ohio Division of Wildlife. 2E1R was a juvenile bird in those days, too young to fly.
About 58 million birds representing hundreds of species have been banded in North America since 1904. More than 3.1 million bands have been recovered and reported. Data from the banded birds are used in monitoring populations, setting hunting regulations, restoring endangered species, studying the effects of environmental contaminants and many other issues.
Among birders, the banding process is one of those things that gets hotly debated; good for the scientists—stressful to the birds, etc. No doubt, a few birds do die in the process. I think, however, in general the birds—and the humans—are better for the banding.

In May 2008 Susan and I, along with a group from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, were in Madera Canyon, Southwest Arizona, on a birding/astronomy adventure. We watched in fascination as wildlife artist/bird-bander George West attached microscopic-size bands to the legs of humming birds. I wondered if—how—anyone would ever find those bands given the fact that the bird was the size of his thumb. George said much of the benefit comes from recapture of the bird, not finding the band when the bird is dead.
The more we know, the more we know we don't know all that much. And that's good to know, too.

Think Spring

Here in Northeast Ohio, the American Goldfinches, like the rest of us, assumed that because we had one of the warmer month’s of March on record, it was time to toss off the drab winter coats and get ready for spring. Time to clean the closets and get ready for visitors coming out of hibernation. Maybe even head north for spring break.
Nature can be a cruel mother, and April is her month to shine. Bright sunny days turn to sleet and rain; rain to snow and snow to …
Well, snow turns to some beautiful photo opportunities, if nothing else. It’s the kind of weather we hope for in November. Gorgeous outlines on the trees; ugly brown leaves covered and the streets remain clear, if only a bit wet.
One of these years we’ll figure it all out. For now, however, it’s time to enjoy the beauty of snow, which is also part of spring.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

A Bird in the Nest is Worth …

I was trying to explain my excitement of recently finding a Red-shouldered Hawk’s nest to a non-birding friend. He didn’t get it. His response was, as best I recall, “What’s the big deal? Isn’t that where birds are supposed to be? In the nest?”
Well, sort of. We’re well into the time of year when some of the larger birds—owls, hawks and others—are on the nest, even feeding young in some cases. The time a bird spends “on the nest” is actually quite short. Depending on the species it can range from a couple weeks to almost a month that one of the parents is on the nest, incubating the eggs. And the bird’s instinctive thermostat tells him or her when the eggs might need a bit of cooling. Plus, you have to eat, so time on the nest can be interrupted.
Then, with all those hungry mouths to fill, it’s virtually non-stop activity for weeks as the adults come and go with the variety of food stuffs for the young. Some birds are easier to observe, like eagles and Osprey bringing home the bacon—or a nice fish dinner in the case of these two. What’s for dinner is more of a challenge with other species.
Take hummingbirds, for example. If you can even find the silver-dollar-size nest you’ve made a major discovery. And to watch an adult, usually the female, coming in with microscopic bugs or whatever for the young is a bonus. The real treat of watching an adult hummingbird feed the young is to see that incredibly long beak slide into the youngster’s throat. The beak looks longer than the bird.

On a recent trip to California Susan and I found two Allen’s Hummingbirds nesting. These three-gram dynamos have no fear. In one instance, we stood directly beneath the nest while the female came and went with who-knows-what for her youngster. The youngster seemed too large for the tiny nest and was more interested in licking the underside of the leaves of the live oak where it nested.
Certainly all the trappings of nesting season provide birders with excitement and challenges, however, seeing the end result—a bird on the nest—can bring new and different rewards.