Friday, October 30, 2009

Birds Just Wanna Have Fun

We have a resident Cooper’s Hawk. Not surprising given that Cooper’s are the more common accipiter species in this area. I’ve taken to calling him (I assume it’s a him) D.B. Cooper in honor of conspiracy theorists everywhere.
If I glance out and see no activity at the feeders, I’ll look around in the trees and often find him perched nearby. D.B. also likes to stand on our deck railing. I once saw him sitting atop the feeder array. This boy needs some education on hunting skills.
This morning as I headed for the trailhead in the park, I caught sight of a speeding bullet coming from my left. No, not a bullet. It was D.B. out to sharpen those hunting techniques. His target species was the resident flock of about 30 Canada Geese we tolerate. As he made his first pass, about 30 feet above the crowd, I noticed that the huge flock of American Crows that has been hanging around were also feeding among the geese. I’d guesstimate the crow flock at 100 birds.
D.B. passed over the gathering and not a feather moved. No one paid any attention. Whatever the geese and crows were feeding on held more promise than a death threat from something smaller than any bird in the crowd.
Undeterred, D.B. executed an inside loop and passed over again, this time about 15 feet above the heads of the ground feeders. That maneuver earned him a few looks and a couple honks.
Another return flip, this time right above the upraised heads of several geese. Now, a few feathers were ruffled. More honking, joined by some cawing from the crows, seemed only to encourage D.B., who has probably never whacked anything larger than a Mourning Dove. This time he reversed direction in a space no longer than his wingspan, diving on two of the more vocal geese. All I can figure is that they must have said something really nasty about his mother. I noticed his talons were not extended, however, I don’t thing the geese realized that. Both geese, using what they had learned in elementary school of how to duck and cover, hit the grass, chinstrap first.
D.B strafed the lot. His actions sent the crows packing in all directions. It looked like an explosion of black sand as birds, all vocalizing, sought shelter. Geese on the fringe of the action wanted no part of the little guy with the blue-colored back and pointy wings. They, too, took off in a thunder of applause, for which side I’m not sure. The two geese who were not able to keep their beaks shut, hugged the grass as D.B. leveled off and came to rest in a nearby walnut tree, now nearly devoid of its leaves.
Apparently training was over for the day. If geese can slink, that’s what the loud-mouthed pair did, talking to themselves or each other, they made their way 25 feet to the safety of the pond.

D.B. Cooper

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I Smell Something Fishy

Park officials in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park seem to be caught between a rock and a wet spot these days. For a long time, the Cuyahoga River dam at Station Road, with Ohio 82 rumbling overhead, has been a bone of contention for environmentalists, fishers and historians. The river is approximately 100 miles long; with 22 of those miles falling within the boundaries of the national park. The stream has been designated as an “area of concern,” one of 43 such areas in the U.S. It has also been designated as American Heritage River.
The back story (Reader’s Digest version) is, the dam, originally erected about 200 years ago, serves as a way of feeding water into the Ohio & Erie Canal—a National Historic Landmark—that parallels the river. Well, not exactly. The current dam was really built in 1951 at approximately the site of the original wooden structure. Historians think, if there’s anything left of the original dam, it’s probably further up stream.
The current 12-foot-high structure still diverts about 2,200 cubic feet of water a day into the canal. This water maintains an illusion of realism for people coming to the park to see how the canal and locks operated. The 163-foot-wide structure is a major piece of heritage in the park.
As a fly fisher, I have mixed emotions about this conundrum. If the dam goes away, so will some great fishing opportunities provided by the canal. Casting for freshwater bonefish (aka carp) is easy and great in the canal.
On the other hand, about two rod lengths away in places, a free running stream would be a boon to the growing steelhead fishery and migrating native fish populations. The steelies already come up the river, and evidently jump the dam when water is high enough. People have been known to catch them 10 miles or so back up stream.

What to do? How can we find a balance between natural resources and historic resources?
Ohio Environmental Protection Agency biologists are ready to pull the plug on the dam. They claim it will improve the ecology of the river. Park ecologists say, they are determined to keep water in the canal.
In seeking a solution, the primary parties opened the discussion to the public, October 28. I went to the meeting, as did nearly 100 other folks. I’ll spare you my rant about people who attend meetings and have no idea why they are there—other than to pitch a bitch at public officials. Tonight’s meeting was the start of the information gathering required when environmental impact statements have to be written. The process will take at least two years before any decision is made on the fate of the Canal Diversion Dam.
After listening to Park Biologist Meg Plona, stream ecologist Bill Zawiski from the Ohio EPA, and Kevin Skerl, an ecologist with the national park, I’m convinced, getting rid of the dam is the best thing for the stream, the fish and us fishers. There are, however, many other things to consider, none of which, in my estimation, are as important as the health of the stream.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Goodness of People

Northern Wheatear

I first thought to title this Wheatear Revisited. Then I realized it’s a story not so much about birds, the Northern Wheatear specifically, but about people and kindness.
Anyone serious (and I’m not sure how to define that) about birding, serious enough to jump in a car and chase 10 miles or 1000 miles to see a rare bird, has been the recipient of the largess of others—often non-birders.
Birders have a network, now even more intense with current technology, to alert likeminded people of the appearance of something special. Over the years, the birds I’ve chased—some successfully, some not—have always appeared to be doing their normal bird thing. The humans on the scene of the sighting, typically act a bit goofy, myself included I suppose. We birders are an easily excited lot. The homeowner who must put up with hoards of people, some inconsiderate of property, typically seem a bit shell shocked.
All of which brings me back around to the Northern Wheatear of this past September, a letter we received today from Emery Yoder—the Amish farmer whose farm the bird chose to visit, and the goodness of people. Mr. Yoder and his family hosted more than 600 birders from all over the country who flocked to his farm to see the Northern Wheatear. The family was gracious beyond the call of duty.
As we were leaving that day, Susan began talking gardening with the young man. The end of that story is we, and many others, walked away with delicious tomatoes, the likes of which never make it to the market, as well as a large bag of grapes. Mr. Yoder accepted money for his produce, however, it seemed that he was not sure what to charge.
Susan made a terrific grape pie the following day and sent a thank you note off to the Yoder family, not only for allowing us to disrupt their daily life, but for the great grapes and tomatoes. She mentioned, if he knew of any farmers in his area who might have Barn Owls, we’d love to get the location. We’ve both seen Barn Owls elsewhere, however, we’d like to see this elusive and threatened species here in Ohio.
Fast forward about a month to today. We received a handwritten letter from Mr. Yoder, still high on the stir created by the sighting of a special bird. His two-page note contained a wonderful grape pie recipe, along with a map and directions to a farmer friend of his who has barn owls and enjoys the visits of birders.
As Susan said, his note is a treasure.
When the daily news overwhelms you with atrocities humans inflict upon one another, think about plain people like the Yoders, and what the ramifications of a little kindness might be. And it started with a bird.

Northern Wheatear

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

It Pays to Get Up

I glanced at my watch to see what time it wasn’t: O-dark 30. I was already a quarter mile down the tracks at Station Road in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I had a spot in mind to make some pictures, except the sun has to be just right, no wind and 1,000 other things over which I have no control had to fall into place.
The distraction of Red-headed Woodpeckers, however, chattering further down the trail, would not allow my mind to focus on the task at hand. The challenge of photographing this threatened species drew me deeper into the nearly dry wetlands. I’m still babying my allegedly injured knee so I took it slow, making sure I had good purchase on the railroad ties with each step. Birds were all around me, enjoying the promise of sun, apparently. Yellow-rump Warblers were making pests of themselves as they gleaned insects from low branches, seemingly unaware of my presence. I tried not to take it personally. Cedar Waxwings were snaging the higher-hanging fruits and bugs.

Eastern Screech-owl
I spotted the woodpeckers and watched as they flitted around, more like late spring, than early fall. As I scanned the trees I caught sight of an Eastern Screech-owl snoozing on its front porch, enjoying the first rays of the morning already hitting the upper branches.
Eastern Bluebirds were hawking bugs and making a lot of noise; unusual for this species, I thought. Then those sentinels of the forest, the Blue Jays, started making a serious racket. I looked around to see what had everyone so upset and spotted a Merlin perched high atop a snag.
To the Merlin’s credit, he was minding his own business, preening, paying little or no attention to the jays. This medium-size falcon species is a rare treat. They’re often confused with American Kestrels or Sharp-shin Hawks.
Some folks I know were probably just stumbling into the kitchen for that first cup of coffee. As Bob Dylan has noted, “Sleep is like temporary death.” If so, then early morning birding is certainly like life. And life is good.


Monday, October 19, 2009

Message From the Sparrow

After being on hiatus from hiking for nearly three weeks because of a bum knee, I started walking again this evening, with tacit approval from the doctor. It felt great. How I’ll feel in the morning will probably be grist for tomorrow’s blog mill.
After last week’s near-scare of winter, a bit of sunshine this evening was welcome. I’d not been on the Bike & Hike Trail in northern Summit County since late summer. I was wondering how “my” Northern Mockingbirds were doing. The Ohio Ornithological Society listserv has been all atwitter with birds migrating through, particularly sparrows, and I needed to get out and find some. Sparrows can be challenging (for me) in any season. To sort out gull species in sub-freezing conditions requires you be part masochist as well as a great birder. Sparrows, while favoring better weather conditions, give you only a fleeting glance to test your birding skills. And they’re 99 percent brown.
Not wishing to test the recuperating knee beyond reason, we opted for about three miles of easy walking. To our delight, the Northern Mockingbird was in his usual spot, high in a maple tree that has already shed its leaves.
Many of the usual suspects were around, however, sparrows seemed to be missing. Turkey Vultures, coming to roost on the huge power towers provided by First Energy Corp., seemed to be paying a lot of attention to me. I waved my arms to show them I was still alive, just moving slowly.
Nearing the end of our walk we heard him. He was so proud of his song. It seems like he’d start repeating the first verse before he finished the full version. There is little mistaking the song of a White-throated Sparrow. We then heard a second bird; then a third. Their message seemed to be: Get on with it, get on with it, get on with it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Battlefield Birds

Visitor Center, Antietam National Battlefield

I watched a kettle of 16 or so Turkey Vultures as it caught a thermal and climbed in the air. They passed the face of a quarter moon and rose higher. The cast bronze of the artillery piece I leaned against felt colder than the comfortable 40 degree air temperature. The sun had been up for about a half hour as I waited for the visitor center at Antietam National Battlefield to open. I wondered if the vulture’s genetic memory told him this was a good place to find a meal. Or, could the stench of blood left in the soil by 23,000 human dead still trigger hunger spasms in the birds? Antietam, or Sharpsburg, would be recalled as the deadliest day in a war that saw too many deadly days.
I stood on Sunken Road, later called Bloody Lane. It’s just a depression in the earth made by farm wagons where soldiers tried to hide. This firefight, which lasted three hours, killed 5,500 men. Eastern Bluebirds were shagging bugs from the wooden picket fence, built to replicate what was there in 1862. Were bluebirds there that morning when the first shots rang out just before dawn? Did they hang around as the cacophony of the muskets and cannon deafened men? Did the Confederate soldiers see the bluebirds through the blinding flash of the Union army muskets? Johnny Reb would have been facing same direction where I stood at approximately the same time of day and time of year, trying to imagine the horror in this now-bucolic scene.
I was in the area after dropping my hiking buddy off at Harpers Ferry. Since I was unable to do the hike, I thought I’d check out the historic sights. I couldn’t do the hike, but I wanted to get a feel for what I’d be missing, I suppose.
In the stillness that was this morning, a Northern Mockingbird sang his complicated song from atop a fir tree. Had mockingbirds graced the few trees shown in the photos of the battle’s aftermath? Only death and devastation can be seen. Men’s bodies strewn about. Limbs missing. Holes where there should be heads.
A pair of Horned larks flittered in circles nearby, then landed to glean what they could from the grass. European Starlings chattered in the trees alongside Bloody Lane. They had not been here in 1862 since they were not introduced in America until 1890. The cheerful and incessant song of a Carolina Wren drew my attention away from the depressing sight.
And what have we learned since that uncivil Civil War? Not much. I can’t imagine anyone touring the battlefields of Vietnam where 50,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese lost their lives. Nor will they tour the bloodstained battlegrounds of Korea, Iraq or Afghanistan. Maybe the birds will.
The genetic memory bank of the vultures, or maybe the warming thermal, drew the kettle east, toward Gettysburg.

Bloddy Lane, Antietam National Battlefield

Thursday, October 08, 2009

A Picture is Worth …

What’s a picture worth? I made the above photo a few days ago, just as I finished preparations for an eight-day wilderness backpacking trip. As happens, the packing ended in the living room. The 37-pound blue hulk would stay there until I loaded it into my car and headed south to meet up with my hiking partner. His actions mirrored mine. Except, he was heading north from Birmingham. In four days we’d meet near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. So this is a happy picture, filled with anticipation.
Then came Friday and my right knee, swollen to the size of a Halloween pumpkin. Apparently, two months of rigorous training had taken its toll. By Monday I could barely walk. The doc (and my wife, previously) said it was bursitis. To which I said, bursitis is for old people. To which both said …
Well, let’s forget what they said. Actually, I got a lot of sympathy and concern from Susan and from the doc. They probably sensed I was in the foulest mood I’ve been in for a long time. Being what I am, I did all the research on this bursitis thing, and am not happy with what I learned. That was after the doc had used a needle and syringe the size of a caulking gun to drain my swollen knee.
Now I’m hobbling around, running through all of the clich├ęs I can think of: It’s not the end of the world; the Trail will be there when you’re ready; there are many people in worse shape …
So, the happy picture has turned into a sad picture. A picture of what might have been. I’ll look at it again, in a couple weeks, and maybe find it to be a happy picture once more.
And, the biggest pain in the butt (since nobody asked) is that I can’t retreat to the woods for solace as I normally do when life throws one of these curve balls at me.
Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Around Every Bend

He said his name was Tom. He was from Montana. I was unsure if he might be in the early stages of shock, or if it was hypothermia. Our temperature had dropped to 39 degrees and he was clad in a lightweight T-shirt and running shorts. Then I noticed his high-quality, muddy and scuffed hiking boots. He was no beginner. His disorientation seemed to be an overdose of adrenaline.
I was about an hour into a hike that felt more like a wrong way trip on an escalator. Wet leaves covered acorns. It was one step up and two slips back. Going down hill, it was one step down and—Yikes! More than once I had an earth-moving experience.
I dropped down off the ridge where I had been hiking in favor of the flat, less-challenging, multi-purpose trail known as the Towpath Trail. During the week it’s a pleasant experience. On weekends you take your life in your hands because if there’s a “purpose,” people will be doing it.
Tom was just standing there when I popped out of the bushes. Probably my clambering, along with the great conversation I was having with the Voices, alerted him to my presence. He looked at my pack and said, “Hi. You live here?”
Hmmm. Good question. I told him, not exactly. I just hike here, although I do live just over that ridge …
I guessed his age at early 20s. He told me this was his first visit to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. He lived in Montana and his parents had just moved to the area and this was the first time he’d even been in Ohio and he decided to walk the dog and he started out about three miles down the trail and …
Wow! This guy could talk. Then he started asking questions. He was amazed to learn about the Ohio-Erie canal that once stretched the length of the state.
“Did they dig it by hand?”
“In 1827 hands and shovels were all they had.”
“How did locks operate?”
“Well, they dam the water there, and …”
“Where did all these trees come from?”
I asked him to back up to the part about walking the dog. He looked around like it was the first he’d heard about any dog. Then I spotted the dog coming out of the bushes. I never got the dog’s name. I called him Killer, which he didn’t seem to mind as he snarled at me. He was one of those white, puff-ball kinda creatures the coyotes in these parts have for starters—if they’re not too hungry. Killer had a little blue bow in his hair between his ears. I decided not to ask what that was about.
Tom went on and on about the trees and how green everything was. I answered his questions as best I could and was surprised at how much I do know about the park.
Then he said, “The best thing about this place, that we don’t have in Montana, is that there is something different around every bend in the trail. Our trails don’t bend.”
I wished him, and Killer, a pleasant hike. And told him to tell his friends in Montana how pretty Ohio can be.