Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Once In a … While

We’ve all said it: Something special happens once in a blue moon. Well, here comes your big chance. On New Year’s Eve we’ll have a blue moon. New Year’s Eve, aka Amateur Night, is a scary night to have a full moon—and a blue moon is only going to make it worse, I’m afraid. I’m glad I’m not a cop having to deal with the whackos that will be roaming the streets.
How rare is a blue moon? My mother joked when moving from our family home after 53 years, that she moves only once in a blue moon—and there was one that night.
Folklore has us believe that a blue moon is the second full moon in a calendar month. Usually months have only one full moon. Full moons are separated by 29 days, while most months are 30 or 31 days long; so it is possible to fit two full moons in a single month. This happens every two and a half years, on average.
But what about that color thing? About 125 years ago, when the Indonesian volcano, Krakatoa exploded (scientists liken the blast to a 100-megaton nuclear bomb), the moon turned blue. Some of the ash-clouds were filled with particles about 1 micron (one millionth of a meter) wide--the right size to strongly scatter red light, while allowing other colors to pass. White moonbeams shining through the clouds emerged blue, and sometimes green.
According to the folks at NASA, the key to a blue moon is having in the air lots of particles slightly wider than the wavelength of red light (0.7 micron)—and no other sizes present. This is rare, but volcanoes sometimes spit out such clouds, as do forest fires.
So, December 31 we’ll have what Native Americans termed the Full, Long-nights Moon. It’s also called the Full Cold Moon. And since we have two full moons this month, feel free to pick either name.
Since I was still stuck on the word, “blue,” I had to do some research. According to the Farmers’ Almanac, one explanation connects it with the word "belewe" from the Old English, meaning, "to betray." Perhaps, then, the Moon was "belewe" because it betrayed the usual perception of one full Moon per month.
However, in the March 1999 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, author Phillip Hiscock revealed one somewhat confusing origin of this term. It seems that the modern custom of naming the second full moon of a month "blue," came from an article published in the March 1946 Sky & Telescope magazine. The article was "Once in a Blue Moon," written by James Hugh Pruett. In this article, Pruett interpreted what he read in a publication known as the Maine Farmers' Almanac (no relation to this Farmers' Almanac, published in Lewiston, Maine), and declared that a second full moon in a calendar month is a "Blue Moon."
Hmmm. The end of the story is: Get out your blue party hat and put out the blue corn chips. That last full, blue moon on New Year’s Eve was 19 years ago. The next won’t be until 2028. Waahooooo!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It Was a Dark and Gloomy …

It was a dark and gloomy morning. Susan and I sat, warming our hands and brains with the day’s first coffee. We peered through the darkness to where our bird feeders had yet to emerge. We were reviewing the lengthening list of “must-dos” for the day. The holidays are baring down on us like Santa’s fully loaded sleigh gone outta control.
We went to the bottom of the list, checked the thing least important, and made that our first choice. We tossed lots of warm clothes and birding gear into the car, along with enough Starbucks coffee to cause that company’s stock to rise a couple points, along with various other nutritious snacks we knew we’d never eat. We were off to see Ohio’s first-reported Allen’s Hummingbird. It’s been hanging around down in Amish Country, Holmes County, 60 miles from here, since September. It was just “officially” identified last Friday. The Ohio Bird Records Committee will make the final decision, eventually. There were enough reliable reports about this bird to convince us that it was a must see.
As with other out-of-place birds, the usual questions arise: What’s this three and three-quarter-inch California native doing in Ohio in December? How did he get here? Where will he go—and when?
Allen Chartier, a bird bander from Michigan, captured and banded this bird last Friday. You can find a thorough discussion of its capture and banding on his blog, There are also some great photos of the bird by Bruce Glick.
We were greeted at the door by Mae Miller, home owner and current provider for this bronze-tailed visitor. She told us the bird was seen twice this morning, already. The temperature had reached a balmy 18 degrees as we waited and watched the feeder, now wrapped in a heat tape to keep the water from freezing. After 15 minutes or so, bird bander/researcher Tom Bartlett appeared. Tom is a kind of bird magnet. It’s always good to have people like him around when you’re hoping for a rare bird to make an appearance.
Within five minutes or so, the diminutive guy we’d been waiting for zipped around the corner of the house. He gave the feeder a head fake, then flew to the nearby apple tree. Susan picked him out among the leafless branches while I whacked myself in the face with binoculars, cameras and uncooperative eyeglasses.
True to his nature, the green and rufous bird flew to the feeding station. He tanked up for a few minutes, then hurried off to do whatever California visitors do in Ohio in mid December.
What started as a gloomy day, when others might opt to hunker down with a good book, turned out to be just the opposite—proof that it pays to get out of bed in the morning. Now, what’s next on that list?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Let’s Do Lunch

Saturday was one of those days when I was so busy I barely had time to do anything. It was bright and sunny. I wanted to be outside playing. Instead, all of the inside things I had neglected during the week caught up with me.
Around noon I decided to take a lunch break. It seemed like a good time to stop doing whatever it was that I was suppose to be doing and watch the birds, who were also having lunch. Lots of activity happening with the usual suspects coming and going. I wanted to get some pix of the current visiting Red-breasted Nuthatch since he had a lot of color for a bird at this time of the year. Camera in place, I headed to the kitchen to see what I could scrounge up.
Walking back to my favorite spot for photographing the feeder activity, I noticed a total lack of birds at the array. Without even looking I knew the reason. D.B. Cooper (aka Cooper’s Hawk) was in the neighborhood. I glanced over at the deck railing and … Whoa! No peanut butter and jelly sandwich for this guy. House Finch seemed to be the special of the day.
Science tells us, on first arriving at a feeding station, a Cooper's may take three or four birds in quick succession. The smaller birds rapidly become wary, forcing the hawk to locate a nearby hiding place. On Sunday morning, Susan and I watched for nearly a half hour as D.B. perched in the rain, within 10 feet of the feeder. He seemed to have a confused expression, as if to ask, “Where are all the birds?”. Usually, hawks only visit a feeding station for a short period of time each day and take a bird or two. If a feeding station is especially busy or there is an exceptionally good hiding place nearby, the hawk may continue to visit for a week or two. Eventually the prey birds stay away and the hawk moves on to find another location.
Not so in our case. D.B. has become part of the landscape at our place. Our birding acquaintances have mixed emotions about hawks raiding the feeder. It does seem like dirty pool to attract songbirds, only to have them find themselves on the menu. I contrasted that thought with a recent encounter with a person who feeds birds as well as three feral cats. Talk about dirty pool. At least the hawk eats what it kills—and kills to eat.
Feral cats kill hundreds of millions of birds, according to the American Bird Conservancy, National Audubon Society and many other organizations that have studied the problem. There are more than 90 million pet cats in the U.S., the majority of which roam outside at least part of the time. In addition, millions of stray and feral cats roam our cities, suburbs and rural areas. If you have a cat, keep it indoors. Solutions to this crucial and unnecessary problem of feral cats can be found at, and

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Sharp Air, Sharp Beaks

After 11 days out of town, mooching rooms and meals from relatives, it felt good to be back on the home patch this morning. The feeders were virtually empty so Task One was to refill the array. The air was a brisk, a sharp 23 degrees as I poured seed into the hoppers and shouldered some minor abuse about my dereliction of duties from the chickadee population.
I could tell winter was in the air, or at least in the ground, as I walked around. For the first time this season the earth felt as hard as concrete. Little humps and ridges left behind by the various creatures that eat beneath our feeders did not give way under my shoes.

It’s curious to me how things, like frozen earth, which seem so daunting to humans, are taken in stride by birds that must find their eats regardless of the time, temperature or anything else thrown at them.
Earlier in the week, while in St. Louis, I watched a female Northern Flicker, the ant eater of the avian world, as she inspected what had probably been a chipmunk, vole or maybe a snake, hole. No ants around at this time of year, yet she seemed quite interested in what might be down there. With caution she slowly lowered her head, and kept an eye on the two-inch opening. Finally, when sure nothing was going to have her for breakfast, she began hammering away. She pummeled the hole’s entrance until she eventually unearthed a … what?
Whatever she found, it was tasty enough to carry off into the trees.