Monday, November 30, 2009

An Easy Way to Find a Rare Sparrow

Way back in the last century, when I used to work for a living (as compared with playing for a living as I do now), I came to St. Louis on business—and birding as was my want. St Louis was, and still is to a degree, the only place in the country where a birder can find the Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
A lot of mysteries surround the diminutive bird, the greatest for me is why the bird does not expand beyond its current range. Twenty years ago there was an article in the American Birding Association newsletter about the sparrow and how to locate it within a well-defined neighborhood in St. Louis. As luck would have it I was going to St. Louis that very week so the newsletter was on top of my business papers.
I recall that wintery day when I first saw the bird. Most of the streets in what I now know as the Dog Town area are one way. Piles of snow hampered travel. I was not to be denied. I eventually parked and walked the neighborhood until I finally spotted a flock of sparrows on a backyard feeder. As I was studying the bird, a resident of the house came out and I thought I’d have some explaining to do.
Turns out the man was quite friendly. He asked me where I was from, then looked up “Medina, Ohio” in a large notebook he was carrying. No one from Medina in his book. I was a “lifer” for him! He’d been ticking off birders for years, he said.
We talked about the birds for a while, then I had to go. He seemed equally as happy that I had seen the Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
How the bird got to St Louis is not a mystery. In the 19th century, south St. Louis was the home of many European immigrants who wanted to see familiar birds from their homeland. So, on April 25, 1870, 12 Eurasian Tree Sparrows were released in Lafayette Park in south St. Louis. Numbers of other European birds were also released (European Goldfinches, Eurasian Bullfinches, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, and Linnets), but only the Eurasian Tree Sparrow successfully established a breeding population.
The birds have expanded their territory, however, not as fast or as far as one might expect of non-native bird. Since my wife hails from St. Louis and many of her relatives still live here, our trips to the area always include a search for the sparrow. It’s not a physically remarkable bird, only rare—which makes it remarkable, I guess. In that silent language birders often adopt, Susan, while talking on the phone, got my attention by clicking her fingers. I looked up from the book I was reading and she was pointing to the bushes in her mother’s suburban backyard. There sat a Eurasian Tree Sparrow! The search for the bird this year was the easiest ever.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

You Can Do a Lot With Spit

If you’re a paper wasp, home is where you hang it.
A great reason for getting into the woods at this time of the year is the opportunity to see the variety of nests animals build, then abandon, only to do it all again next year.
Highly visible are the nests left behind, sort of, by paper wasps. Paper wasps and hornets are social creatures. They live in colonies of workers, queens and males.
Only the inseminated queens overwinter, thus my hesitation to say the nests are abandoned. Queens might also winter over in any protected place; structures such as hollow logs, stumps, under bark and leaf litter.
The first warm days of late April or early May bring the queens to the surface. They select a nest site and build a small paper nest in which eggs are laid. One egg is laid in each cell. As she adds more cells around the edge, eggs are deposited.
Larvae in the center are older with the younger larvae further out. Cells at the rim of the nest contain eggs. After eggs hatch, the queen feeds the larvae. When larvae are ready to pupate, cells are covered with silk, forming little domes over the individual openings. Larvae pupate, emerging later as small, infertile females called "workers." This happens by mid-June. The first adult workers emerge and assume the tasks of nest expansion, foraging for food, caring for the queen and larvae and defending the colony.
The initial nest of the paper wasp is the work of a single female. It has a single layer or "tier" of cells and is not enclosed by envelopes. In hornets, the nests usually consist of a number of stories or "tiers," one below the other and completely enclosed by spherical walls. Each cell may be used for two or three successive batches of brood.
There are 22 species of paper wasps in North America and approximately 700 species world-wide. Most are found in the tropics of the western hemisphere.
The nests of most species are suspended from a single, central stalk and have the shape of an upside-down umbrella. Plant and wood fibers are collected by the wasps, mixed with saliva, and chewed into a papier-mâché-like material that is formed into the thin cells of the nest.
The next time you’re whining about a home repair job, imagine trying to complete it—even make the material you need—using only your mouth.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

How to Spend Time You Don’t Have

Red-bellied Woodpecker

In spite of more tasks than we could ever complete on our “Get-Ready-for-Thanksgiving” list, Susan and I could not stay focused. Yet another gorgeous day landed here in Northeast Ohio. These are truly bonus days and must not be wasted inside, doing absolutely necessary things.
The day started out gloomy and fog enshrouded. It promised to be a perfect day to stay inside. Then it happened. The sun popped out about 2 p.m. and we were finished working inside.
Off we went to a favorite spot in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, not shown on the maps. We call it the Ridge Walk. At this time of the year, when trees have dropped their leaves to show their true nature, you can see for miles to the southwest over the park.
Birding was slow, except for the woodpeckers. This species was not loafing on this late fall day. Most interesting were the Red-bellied Woodpeckers. We watched one guy in particular as he stashed acorns into cracks and crevasses of the shagbark hickory trees.
Red-bellied Woodpecker is a species we see year round. They are regulars at the suet cakes of our feeder array. When one is feeding it has no challengers. One look at that chisel-like beak and other birds find something else to do. The birds probe more than hammer like other woodpeckers, preferring to quietly get at those insects. Red-bellieds are omnivorous. Whatever’s on the menu seems to fit their needs. Their preference for insects and insect larvae provide a valuable natural control for insect pests.
As its name implies, there is a red patch edged with a yellowish wash on the belly of both the male and the female. Good luck seeing it.
And, from the Too-Much-Information Department comes this: A Red-bellied Woodpecker can stick out its tongue nearly two inches past the end of its beak. The tip is barbed and the bird’s spit is sticky, making it easier to snatch prey from deep crevices. Males have longer, wider-tipped tongues than females.

Photo Op

Cooper's Hawk

This was one of those mornings when a lot of people might be tempted to leave the camera in the bag and slip into the safety of the Sunday newspaper. I couldn’t tell if the fog was lifting or settling in for the duration as I stepped outside in search of my newspaper, normally lodged against the garage door.
As I was wondering why the fog made it seem colder than the advertised 47 degrees, my resident Cooper’s Hawk landed in the recently pruned crab apple tree. He seemed to be inspecting the pruning job, which gave him clearer access to our feeder array only eight feet away.
When he saw me standing there he made a quick assessment and decided to look for smaller, or more colorful eats for breakfast.
So starts another day for all creatures, great and small.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Is it Getting Hot in Here …

Last night’s spring-like temperatures in mid-November seemed appropriate for a discussion of climate change—the term now more preferred than global warming. It’s still about global warming no matter what you term it.
At a special meeting of concerned citizens, sponsored by AudubonOhio ( and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (, Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation, National Audubon Society (, presented his research on the shifting ranges of birds, gleaned from more than 40 years of Audubon Christmas Bird Count data. The tired cliché of birds being the canary in the coal mine was never more appropriate.
The end of the story (Or, is it just the beginning?) is that it’s getting warmer and of the 305 bird species Butcher reviewed, 58 percent show their center of abundance in winter is moving north—and many are moving westward as well.
“On average,” said Butcher, “the birds have moved north about 40 miles. More than 60 species have moved further than 100 miles north in winter and the leader appears to be the Purple Finch, whose center of abundance is now more than 400 miles further north of where it was 40 years ago.”
He added that northward movement was detected among species of every type, including more than 70 percent of highly adaptable forest and feeder birds.
Grassland species seem to be an exception. Only 38 percent mirror the northward trend. That’s far from being good news for species like Eastern Meadowlark and Henslow's Sparrow. This non-movement reflects the grim reality of severely depleted grassland habitat. It also suggests that these species now face a double threat from the combined stresses of habitat loss and climate adaptation.
The fact that feeder birds are wintering further north is an example of the complication in doing this kind of research. Feeder birds are finding a lot more food available as millions of people now make more food available than in the past. Couple this with the fact that nights are now warmer in winter, thus requiring less food for them to survive, and you can see how populations have increased and moved northward. Then, to add to the woes of neotropical migrants returning in spring, territories and food supplies are already controlled by birds that were able to survive the winter.
Butcher’s report was, as is all good science, heavily laden with numbers and warm, dry facts. If you want to see the entire report, you can read it, and much more information on this critical subject, at It’s a compelling argument that our world is getting warmer, and not necessarily better. Will we, and the birds, survive? Probably. When you factor in other things impacting the survival of birds—like loss and degradation of habitat—the picture for many bird species is bleak.
So, what can we do? Butcher, and Marnie Urso, grassroots coordinator for AudubonOhio, had a list of community action initiatives, such as letters to write, or phone calls to make to legislators on the state and national level. In my opinion, depending on legislative action to resolve this problem is like talking to that stump over there. I agree, policy action is probably the only thing that will wake some people and get them to do something—anything.
I think a more powerful, immediate message, or action, is to use less of things causing the problem. If your head hurts from beating it against the wall, moving the wall is not the best option.
Ohio ranks second as an emitter of greenhouse gases because of our reliance on outdated, inefficient coal-fired electric generation. Finding ways to reduce our personal use of electricity, driving more fuel-efficient cars and creating reliable, affordable public transportation will have a more immediate impact on global warming than all the hot air generated by politicians and their running-dog lackey lobbyists. Then, maybe, the politicians can turn off the lights and go home early, thus using even less electricity.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Call It What You Will

Brown Creeper

I use to think it was Aldo Leopold who said words to the effect that the first step to understanding something was to call it by its proper name. Well, I can’t find the quote (maybe it was the voices in my head) so I’ll just say, ‘some wise person once said … .’ I was thinking about that quote this past weekend as Susan and I were birding with some friends. We were, ostensibly, looking for waterfowl, however, the birds have yet to start their major migration. Consequently, as birders will do, we looked at anything that moved.
Some birds’ names are right on target, while others make you scratch your head in wonder. Take the Ring-necked Duck we were seeking, for example. It has a beautiful white ring on its bill and no discernable marking on its neck; the Red-tailed Hawk’s tail is not always red; and only if you’re lucky do you see the red belly of the Red-bellied Woodpecker.
There can be no doubt, however, about the Blue-footed Booby, the Eastern Bluebird, or, our favorite from this weekend, the Brown Creeper. Most birds carry names that are descriptive of some color it has—or allegedly has. The creeper, creeps. It slowly (unless you’re trying to photograph it) works its way up the trunk of a tree, probing for insects or eggs. It’s coloration blends with the bark of a tree so well that when it stops moving your odds of seeing it are greatly reduced.
No matter what you call them, birds attract us for what they are and do. A chevron of Canada Geese flies over and we always look up. A Brown Thrasher thrashes and we always look down. And will we understand them better because of their names? Probably not. A name is a key to identification, not understanding.

Eastern Bluebird

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Morning in the Life …

Red-shouldered Hawk

In a couple months I’ll think of mornings with temperatures in the low thirties as warm and comfy. For the time being, I was questioning my clothing choices as I headed south on the trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. If I stayed in the sun, nearly impossible, it was comfortable. Otherwise, I’d describe it as being on the brisk side.
I heard a Red-shouldered Hawk calling from far away. That distinctive, “kee-ah, kee-ah, kee-ah,” probably travels for miles on cool fall mornings. Following the sound, I located the bird, perched high, enjoying the warmth of early morning sun. Or, at least that’s how I interpreted the scene. He was puffed up like the Pillsbury Doughboy. I wondered how, from so high up, he could possibly spot his breakfast running in the leaf litter below.
Turns out that spotting a meal is easy as pie for these guys. Studies have shown they can spot a mouse a half mile away. His eyesight is two or three times better than we humans. If we had eyes like a hawk we could read a newspaper a football field away—or so goes the myth. I watched as the hawk called and looked around. Did he call so much for the reason I was told an owl hoots? Some theorize the owl hoots in order to scare prey out of hiding.
Occasionally he glanced down at me. I’m sure he was thinking, “If that human had these cool brow ridges over his eyes like me, he wouldn’t have to fuss with that damn silly baseball cap to keep the sun out of his eyes.”
He finally tired of me, and the fact that I was probably standing in his breakfast cereal bowl, and took off.
I took a couple shortcuts heading for home and popped up on the bike trail and back toward what passes for civilization in these parts. I glanced up at the utility towers and saw a Red-tailed Hawk sunning himself. He seemed content to just look around this morning. These birds of the buteo species are not built for speed, so it’s a good thing they have great eyesight. And probably their reason for sitting in the open so often.
It didn’t take long before crows in the neighborhood also saw the hawk. In a obvious case of racial profiling, the crows began harassing the hawk for no reason other than he was in their neighborhood. With reluctance the hawk dropped from his perch to get some wind beneath his wings and made a graceful glide, about 50 yards away, to the safety of a stand of oak trees.
Hawks make it looks so easy, although I’m not so sure about the part where you have to catch all your meals with your mouth …

Red-tailed Hawk

Monday, November 09, 2009

Well, That Depends …

Pileated Woodpecker

I was out on the Bike/Hike Trail early this morning to check on “my” mockingbirds. I’ve been monitoring the activity of a few Northern Mockingbirds for about a year now. The species is still an uncommon visitor to this corner of Summit County. I’d not been out to check on the birds for nearly a week so I was curious to see if they were still hanging around.
Six Eastern Bluebirds fluttered into the trees nearby as I was trying to make some pictures of a uncooperative Dark-eyed Junco. I turned my attention to them. About that time, two women walking their dogs—at least I think they were dogs—stopped to see what I was looking at.
“Hi. You a photographer,” asked one whose dog was about the size of a gerbil.
Someday I’ll just simply answer ‘yes’ to that question, but not today. “No. This camera’s just for show,” I had to say.
“There’s nothing to take pictures of,” said the other woman, whose dog looked like a cat I used to own. “I mean, like all the color is gone even if the leaves were on the trees. Which they aren’t, by the way.”
I had just been thinking how great it was to have the leaves off the trees so we can better see the colorful woodpeckers.
Trying to redeem my karma, which I’m sure had dropped a few points, I sought to educate. I pointed out the woodpeckers, of which three species were visible without binoculars. A Pileated Woodpecker passed overhead, so close I could hear its wings beat. I pointed out four other species of birds, colorful berries and the grasses which had turned a thousand shades of gold.
They were not convinced. The lady with the gerbil on a leash said, “Well, I guess it’s all how you look at it.”
With which I had to agree. The mockingbird calling in the distance was my cue to leave.

Northern Mockingbird

Friday, November 06, 2009

Ten Reasons For Not Catching Fish

First, I’d like to thank all of you folks who went to the office this morning on this drop-dead gorgeous day. It’s because of you, and Social Security, that guys like me can blow an entire day on the stream, not catch a fish, and still be happy.
The fly fisher has 1,000 things he can do wrong and not catch a fish. The fish, on the other end of this story, has only to commit a single error. Here are 10 reasons why the fish won—this time:
1. The sun was too bright.
2. The water was too clear.
3. It was too early in the day.
4. It was too late in the day.
5. Three Belted Kingfishers worked the stream, distracting me.
6. A herd of 11 deer crossed upstream and spooked the fish.

7. My newly built steelhead rod was too gorgeous and distracting.
8. The moon was on the wane.
9. Barometric pressure was too low.
10. Barometric pressure was too high.
11. My fishing guru, Tom, was, allegedly, preparing for a trip to North Carolina.
Any fisher who tells you it’s not always about catching fish is, at least in this instance, telling the truth.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

A Close Encounter

In retrospect, had he been so inclined, he could have had his way with me. And, in retrospect, had I any common sense, or sense of fear, I should have done something, anything, other than what I did. I suppose my highly evolved human brain was telling me I had encountered white-tailed deer during rutting season in the past and nothing negative had happened. So why panic?
I was about two and half miles into my hike and stopped to make some pictures of the little brown birds making a fuss in the brush. It was a great group; White-throated Sparrows, Song Sparrows, a couple Dark-eyed Juncos and a Field Sparrow or two.
I’d like to think I sensed, rather than heard the deer. I looked to my right and there he stood. He was within 10 feet of me. I quickly did the math: If I zoom back to 150mm, minimum focus is about 10 feet. Too close, and when I raise the camera he’ll … What will he do? Would a $3,000 Nikon club be a match for those six antler points or the sharp hooves? My point-and-shoot camera was in my jacket pocket, however, the battery had pooped out earlier.
Okay. I calmly assessed the situation and determined that, basically, I was dead meat.
He just stood there, looking at me. No huffing and puffing. No scraping the ground with his hooves. In a stare-down contest I might be able to take him. If it came to a smack-down, I was toast.
I thought maybe diplomacy might be the way out. I asked him what he thought of Tuesday’s elections? Did he think winter would be early this year? How ‘bout those Cleveland Cavilers? News, weather, sports; the basics of modern-day conversations.
We looked at leach other for what seemed like a long time. It was probably 15 seconds. He exhaled a short breath. I did the same. I didn’t realize I’d been holding mine. He turned his head and looked off in the direction he was heading. He didn’t move, only stared, head raised, totally at ease. Fearless.
The birds fussing in the bushes had stopped. Were they watching and waiting? I tried to see what he was seeing as we both gazed into the scenic valley to our west. I saw colorful cars zipping on the road. A gray building I knew to be a veterinary clinic. A colorful American flag stretched to its maximum in the stiff northwest wind. Multi-colored houses spotted the scene to our left and in the distance, a housing development blighted the far side of the valley.
And there were signs. Lots of signs. Litter on a stick. Signs telling me to do this, don’t do that. Bedraggled signs advising me to vote for this or not for that. Signs telling me where political boundaries were—as if it made a difference. Garish signs directing me to the scenic byway blocked my view of the scenic byway.
What did he see? Research by the University of Georgia, University of California and the Medical College of Wisconsin indicates that deer see primarily in shades of green and blue. Researchers believe that deer probably see fluorescent orange as lime green. So, other than loss of habitat, he probably could not make much sense out of what he saw. I realized we weren’t all that much different.
One last soft exhalation and he walked away, carefully picking his way down the slope, through someone’s backyard and into the protective arms of the national park.

Field Sparrow. Note the band on its right leg.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

A New Way of Seeing

Last night’s full moon

Birding in winter months is either tough in the extremis, or boring to tears. Our part of the world here in northeast Ohio offers little middle ground. Watching House Finches at the feeder every day is not exactly challenging. Feeling tears freeze to your face while standing on the shores of Lake Erie looking for gulls is more challenge than many people want.
Well, here’s a dimension to birding I suspect you’ve not tried. It offers an opportunity to see things you’ve not seen before. Or, more accurately, to see them in a different light. I call it astrobirding. Here’s how it works.
It so happens that winter months offer excellent opportunities for astrobirding. On nights with a full moon, such as last night, or near-full moon, haul your spotting scope out. Focus on the nearest astronomical object we have—the moon. If you have an eyepiece that gives you 30X magnification you’ll see sights you might not expect. It also works with binoculars, however, it’s not as exciting since you can’t get the high magnification.
Although looking at the moon before and after the midpoint of its near-monthly trip through the sky yields more exciting moon views, it’s when the moon is full that you have the best chance of spotting birds.
Actually, the moon’s not really full. It’s a half moon since we can’t see the backside, but that’s another story.
This time of the year, with clear, stable air, is ideal for astrobirding. Birds in the night sky drift overhead. Our nearest celestial neighbor makes the perfect backdrop. The next couple months provide us with some great opportunities. You’ll have about seven hours of full-moon time to stare through your scope and watch for owls, swans, cranes, flights of ducks and whatever else might be slashing through the late-fall night sky.
Check an almanac, your local paper or for moon rise and set times. The next three months will be great because the moon rises in the late afternoon or early evening, perfect timing.
Birds crossing the face of the moon move fast, or so it seems. They appear more as impressions than actual sightings. When you see something, back away from the eyepiece, reflect on what you saw—or thought you saw—and take an educated guess.
Silhouettes: fleeting as memories; elusive as dreams.
Any night, two or three nights on either side of the full moon work for astrobirding. In November we hit the full moon on the 2nd. In December we have a real treat—a blue moon. We have full moons on the second and the 31st. Oh my, a full moon on New Year’s Eve.
We might see some early flights of Tundra swans (already moving through the area), though they usually fly over later in the month. It’s a great way to end one year and start another.
I keep watching and hoping for a loon.

Clouds offer an artistic challenge to astrobirding.