Friday, December 31, 2010

End of the Year

Northern Shovelers, Castalia, Ohio

It’s not uncommon at this time of year for birders to take a look at their life list and contemplate adding one more bird, or maybe chasing after a rare sighting in the area to sort of pump up the yearly species total. This past week I found myself guilty on both counts. The end result can be both good and less than good.
First, I thought Santa was going to deliver an early Christmas present to me. A few days before the holiday word popped up on the Ohio Ornithological Society’s hot line that several Ross’s Geese were at Castalia Pond, about 75 miles away, along with several Cackling Geese. The alarm bells sounded in our household and it wasn’t the jingling of sleigh bells. While both Susan and I have tallied the Ross’s Goose, the Cackling variety of Canada Goose has eluded us.
Plans were made, snacks packed, car gassed up and off we went. Oh, we did have company for the holidays, my brother in from the nation’s capital. He had heard of this bird-chasing habit of ours but had never witnessed it. I might add that he hates cold weather and the day’s temperature was 18—not a good combination.

American Wigeon, Castalia, Ohio

The end of the story is that it turned out to be a wild goose chase. The “target” birds were nowhere to be seen. My brother could not understand why we were not dismayed at driving all that distance and not seeing the bird. I tried to explain it’s an acquired skill, missing the target but hitting something else, like stunning Northern Shovelers and American Wigeons.
Then, on New Year’s Eve day, we had a repeat performance, sort of. This time it was a Golden Eagle reported at Mosquito Creek Wildlife Area, about 75 miles in the opposite direction. Again, we’ve both tallied the golden, but it’s so rare in Ohio, you just have to chase it—if at all possible. Our first in Ohio, several years ago, was on a day when the thermometer never got above minus 13. Now, that’s chilly—but worth it.
Again, to shorten the story, the beautiful Golden Eagle was not to be seen. In its place we tallied six Bald Eagles, an equally rare sight in Ohio.
All of which goes to prove, sometimes you win and sometimes you win in the birding game—true sport has no losers.

Bald Eagle, Mosquito Creek Wildlife Area

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Not Just Another Sparrow—Part 2

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

For many birders, making a trip to St. Louis was, and still is, akin to a trip to any spot of birding where a rarity can be found. It was, is, the only place in the U.S. where you could tick the Eurasian Tree Sparrow off your life list.
A lot of mysteries surround this diminutive bird, the greatest for me is why the bird does not expand beyond its current range. Twenty-five years ago there was an article in the American Birding Association’s newsletter about the sparrow and how to locate it—within a well-defined neighborhood in St. Louis. Over the years the article has helped a lot of birders track down this little guy.
Now, it seems the bird is expanding its range from the three-block area where it has thrived. We’ve seen it across the Mississippi River in the Riverlands Project area and, fortunately, in the suburbs—right at my mother-in-law’s feeder on occasion. Today was such an occasion.
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 are not physically remarkable, only rare—which makes it remarkable, I guess. It’s still somewhat secretive out here in the ‘burbs, so any sighting is worth recording. As luck would have it, the trio I saw this morning was cavorting with some House Sparrows allowing for great size and color comparisons.
I suppose purists complain about these essentially invasive species, however, the diversity crowd seems to have assured the continuation of these critters, based on the notion that a life bird is a life bird.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Hunting for Ghosts

Woodson County courthouse, Yates Center, Kansas.

I stood looking at the imposing red brick courthouse, probably, possibly, where my father stood nearly 95 years ago during the Kansas-life he had, and I never knew about. He was a kid fresh into his teens in 1916, anchored by so many loose ends in his life we can’t begin to imagine—or long for. The building stands in the near-geographic center of Woodson County, Kansas, where my genealogy research has most recently taken me.
Looking east, the direction from which he had somehow managed to navigate, colorful buildings built in the late 1880s, restored numerous times, blocked my view of the rising sun. Looking west, were his future with disappointments he’d yet to discover, lay, dark clouds and unrelenting winds welcomed me to late-November Kansas.
The streets are, were, uneven, made of solid, unspeaking bricks, darker in color than those used to build the courthouse building, designed to keep secrets intact. No stop signs around this square to impede traffic or progress, one might guess. Angle parking on both sides of the street still left plenty of room for modern cars to make U-turns. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what might have been when the dirt streets were crowded when long-horned cattle passing through from the no-longer existing railroads to the tall grass prairies north and west of Yates Center.
My camouflage, head to toe, seemed a bit off the mark—again. First, my car was the only one of its kind in this land of seriously big pickup trucks and SUVs I'd need a step ladder to get into. I’m no slave to fashion, so when I entered the Feedbunk, the only place around to get breakfast, I donned the obligatory baseball cap, however, mine advertised striped bass, not some cattle feed or farm implement. I had on my best Justin boots, only to learn natives dress in real camo and wear Nike and New Balance. Since I was relatively free of mud at 6:30 a.m., they probably sensed I was an outsider. (Full disclosure: I’m something of a city guy so I had to ask what a “Feedbunk” was. The waitress looked at me like I might be from outer space and said, “Well, honey, it’s where we put the feed for the cattle,” which I guess is better than calling your restaurant the Food Trough.
I ate at the Foodbunk two mornings, noting that the same guys sat in the same spots, wearing the same clothes both mornings. The things that changed were the conversations, which extended from one table across the aisle to another, booth to booth. I noticed the waitress never offered the locals a menu. She’d just ask, “Are ya eatin’ this morning?” then bring a customer a plate of food.
Conversations ranged from lost dogs, “Yer dog ever come home, Bill?” “Yep. Never did tell me where he’d been for three days,” to hunting; “Yer nephews get any birds yesterday?” “Those two fools? First the young one shot up a trash bag that was blowin’ across the field, then the otherun shot two crows, then they complained ‘bout not seein’ any pheasants.”
I’m not sure if the conversations were real or just for my entertainment. Doesn’t matter, really. As writer William Least Heat-Moon says, “You can worry about every twist in the road, or you can sit back and enjoy the scenery.”

Where my dad’s dreams of being a cowboy began 95 years ago.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

When Size Doesn’t Matter

When it comes to singing, the tiny Carolina Wren can yodel with the best of them. This diminutive bird, about 20 grams soaking wet, 17 centimeters long, might not be the largest of wrens, however, when it comes to singing, it’s in a class by itself. Its song is said to be one of the louder per volume of bird. One male was know to sing about 3,000 times per day. Songs of these birds can vary regionally and contrary to the way humans speak, birds of the north tend to sing slower than birds of the south.
Winter weather takes its toll on this species in northeast Ohio where I live. Visiting with my mother-in-law in St. Louis is always a treat if we haven’t had a large enough Carolina Wren fix back home. I recently read that climate change might in fact help this species to move and stay in more northern climates as things warm—globally.
The Carolina Wren is primarily a southeastern species so seeing them as far west as St. Louis is pushing the limits of their range.
Another unique thing about this species is that pairs will bond for life, often staying together on their territory year round.
Although the birds are primarily insect eaters, you can lure them in with seed, as I did. If you’re out in the woods and you hear a song that sounds like teakettle-teakettle-teakettle, or, like someone running their thumb along the teeth of a comb, it’s probably a Carolina Wren. Stop, look and listen.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Stalking Wildlife

Fox Sparrow, St. Louis, Missouri

My heart was pounding. The quarry was a Fox Sparrow, not uncommon, however, uncommon enough for us that we tick off only one or two per season. As sparrows go, this one is right near the top in good looks. Its feeding habits, much like a towhee, don’t make getting these guys on film (a photo term from the last century) easy. They hang out in deep brush, scratching among leafs like they hadn’t eaten in a couple weeks.
This one, however, opted to hunt closer to me than I could believe. I was ensconced in a comfy chair with a good book, wearing my best camo outfit, jeans and brown chamois shirt as he approached. I was completely hidden behind a blind of glass, unsure of where my camera was. Well, maybe the camo and the blind were not the best, I should have been better prepared.
I dropped to the floor and worked my way behind the chairs, then sat still, watching the bird snagging bug after bug in the leaf litter. Well, hardly was I still. I was burning up electrons like they were free—which they are. I wondered if he could hear the camera’s motor. Suddenly he seemed interested in what I was doing behind the glass blind. He moved closer and closer, stalking me.
At the point we both became cross-eyed, he went back to his bugs and I took my first breath in about two minutes.

Fox Sparrow, St. Louis, Missouri

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Learning Something New

Every now and then, as in once-in-a-blue-moon, I learn something I thought I already knew. I was having a sort of routine chat online with fishing buddy Tom when for no apparent reason he brings up the fact that tonight, November 21, is a blue moon. I didn’t know if he wanted to get together and howl a bit, or what?
I realized, too late, he had trapped me since I like to think I know most of this kinda nature stuff and he tends to be the willing student—well listener at least. Fishing is another matter.
No way is this a blue moon month, says me. Ya haveta have two full moons in the same month for it to be a blue moon. Not so, says he.
Former editor that I am I immediately asked him about his sources.
Dang if he isn’t right. The presumption I’ve lived with for eons has been wrong! We can blame a lot of the confusion on those Gregorian monks’ party planner and their calendars, which did not quite sync with the moon’s cycle of 29.5 days. Those dudes planned all kinds of feasts, planting and who knows what else around the moon’s cycle, usually on the last full moon of the season.
So, to bring a little chaos to the orderly pattern of the moon, the monks opted to make the third full moon in any season, the blue moon. When an extra full moon happened in a season (and screwed up the party plan) they called it a blue moon—an unusual event. By doing so, they could stick with the established name of the last full moon in a season—The Last Full Moon of the Season.
Well, this full moon in November is the only blue moon of the year 2010, reason enough to celebrate. I stepped outside a few minutes ago to explain all this to Luna, who really didn’t care. She lectured me about the loony confusions of man—like calendars. “Live your life by the cycles of the moon. Forget numbers. This is the full beaver moon, last month it was the hunter’s moon, and when next you see me it will be the full wolf moon. Wrap yourself in some cold sheets and dream. I’ll be on my way, now.”

Friday, November 19, 2010

Once More, With Feeling

Clouds and trees offer an artistic challenge to astrobirding.

The caller didn’t identify himself, which made me feel like I’d walked into the middle of a conversation. It went something like this:
Ring, ring.
Me: Hello
Him: You wrote about it a couple years ago and now I got a telescope and I want to try it.
Me: Aaaaaa, I’m not sure …
Him: You know, looking at birds through the scope with the moon in the background.
Me: Oh, yeah, right. I called it astrobirding and …
Him: That’s it. So how do I do it?
I’ll spare you the rest of the conversation. I tend to get calls and email like this when there’s a full moon. I looked out the window and, sure enough, a full moon was rising in the east. In spite of the low-40s temperature I went out to see what I could see.
So for the caller, and anyone else who needs a refresher of that November 3, 2009 blog, here’s a re-write.
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 out your spotting scope. 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 20th. In December it’s the 21st.
I keep watching and hoping for a loon to cross the face of luna.

Last night’s full moon

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Death as a Destination

Fatso getting ready for a long winter's nap.

For some animals, humans in particular, sleep is like a temporary death. It’s one way to get through the long night, albeit, haunting, mesmerizing, sometimes undisturbed. For chipmunks, getting through the night is about as close to death as one can be and still think about a future.
At this time of year we still see the furry creatures scurrying about, gathering seeds, cheeks stuffed to beyond belief with that meal they hope will come in seven or eight months. Proper planning prevents piss-poor performance as my hiking buddy, Tom, often says.
Some place along the evolutionary continuum, chipmunks faced the decision: Migrate, adapt or hibernate.
I can imagine the scene, representatives of all 24 species of these furry critters are seated around a table having coffee and sunflower seeds. “Let’s migrate, guys, just like the birds and Wildebeests,” says their democratically elected leader.
“Can’t, Fred, our legs are too short,” comes a shout from the far end of the table.
“Okay then, let’s make peace, not war, and adapt to this cold, white stuff,” comes a cheery suggestion.
“Can’t Cindy, we have hair and you need fur to withstand that cold stuff. Plus, all our food is buried,” says Charlie.
“Okay, why don’t we just snuggle in and take a nap. A nice, long nap,” says the voice of reason.
“Hmmm, that sounds like a good plan, Susie. Let’s go for it!”
The meeting ends and everyone evolves happily ever after.
These random thoughts came to me as I watched one of our local chipmunks (we’ve named him Fatso) clean out the bird feeders this morning. He’s putting on the fat that will carry him through. According to online sources, chipmunks, also called ground squirrels, normally have a body temperature of 37°C. Getting through the winter requires he double his body mass.
During the winter his heart beat drops from 350 beats per minute to 4 beats per minute. (How ‘bout that, Lance Armstrong!) Also, Fatso’s body temperature will drop from 37°C, to an incredible 3°C.
As one might expect, all of his body processes slow so less fat will be consumed. In Spring, little Fatso will wake weighing about 160 grams, down from the plump 300 grams he started with in December. Unlike humans of a certain age, he will wake only every couple weeks to urinate. (No, I don’t know where. I assume he has a toilet someplace in his underground nest.)
Scientists estimate about two-thirds of the chipmunks never see the light of a spring morning. They die because their bodies run out of food reserves or some predator such as a fox finds them while they are asleep.
Other than that two-third dying part, it sounds like the Chipmunk Strategy has some merit.

Drink all you want when you only have to pee every two weeks.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Easy Come, Easy Go

It was the first snowfall of the season and it won’t be the last snowfall of the season. It was the snowfall all children long for, greet with words like “Oooohh mannnnnn,” imagine three-segment people with top hats, days without teachers. It was the kind of snowfall adults of a certain age anticipate with dread, conjuring moments of stark terror in an automobile, late or missed appointments, scuttled hope-filled dates.
It was the snowfall we all know will arrive, yet never seem prepared for, clothed for, provisioned for, or desired for.
It was the snowfall, that for adults of a certain age, generates images of simpler times, deeper snows, visions of three-segment people in the yard, and words like, “Oooooh mannnnn.”
It was the first snowfall of the season, the one that on the next day reminds us and leaves us with the unanswered question: When the snow melts, where does the white color go?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Room with a Limited View

A big number four.

An unanticipated physical detour has kept me off the road to Blogosphere for the past few weeks. It’s reminiscent of that famous statement by Don Rumsfeld, secretary of defense, (and little-known wannabe birder) back in ‘02. Most people thought he was talking about challenges in Iraq, when actually he was reporting on why his Audubon chapter missed seeing a Slatey-back Gull at the Tidal Pool in Washington: “As we know, 
there are known knowns. 
There are things we know we know. 
We also know 
there are known unknowns. 
That is to say, 
we know there are some things 
we do not know. 
But there are also unknown unknowns, 
the ones we don't know 
we don't know.”
Being in the hospital and having a computer and free WiFi (At what this is costing they should toss in WiFi.) is a mixed blessing. Not unlike having grandchildren. Hourly, rather than watch political commercials on a blurry television (It’s not the TV’s fault, my nurse says.) I read through the bird sightings on the Ohio Ornithological Society’s ListServ. I’ve missed Cave Swallows, Red-throated Loons, Red-necked Grebes, Pine Siskins, Snow Buntings and who knows what else.
To compensate, I’ve opted to keep a list of what I see through my limited angle of view, which my nurse calls the window. Rock Pigeon (or is it back to Rock Dove, it’s been so long) seems to be the dominant species. Maybe I should subdivide them into colors or patterns, or both. American Crow is close at number two, with European Starling coming in a distant third. Fourth, with only six entries is Turkey Vulture. There is no number five, yet, but it’s only been four days, so I’m hopeful. You’re bored, says my nurse.
I’ve also been able to give career advice to two young hospital volunteers, called Comfort Runners. We used to call them Candy Stripers. I had a hard time keeping a straight face when they said they were “Comfort Runners” and was there anything they could do for me. Anyway, we chatted and it turns out they’re sophomores in college. One was actually thinking of heading down the path to Journalism. I told her to run down some other path if she wants comfort in the future. Forty years of experience, ya know.
One of the aides caught me standing next to the window this evening, looking longingly at the sunset while trying to run up the numbers of my Hospital Window Life List. She made some joke about the windows being locked so I could forget about trying to escape. Had I known being hospitalized would be so much fun I would not have waited 68 years for the experience.
The good news is that Susan reports that we had our first Purple Finch of the winter season yesterday at the home feeder. I missed it, too.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Expect the Unexpected

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

In the ancient, now-defunct language of the Wiggidy Warriors, a tribe that inhabited the entire globe at one time, the word “birding” meant, “expect the unexpected.” The elders of the tribe would take youngsters aside and quietly tell them, “When you’re out hunting for truth and goodness in the evil world, and you hear hoof beats, think of horses, not zebras. However, to be successful you must always bird.”
So it was yesterday, another day when striped bass were no place to be found in New England, when what was required was a good book, a glass of wine, a relatively comfortable chair and a stunning view of Ipswich Bay, that the unexpected, which I should have expected, happened.
Here’s what happened I think before the first glass of wine was finished: According to various charts, tables and reports from unbiased sources, 4:25 p.m. was supposed to be the prime fishing time of the day, sun would pop out, wind would drop to zero and fish would leap from the water, dying to, well, die. I had already proven that the preceding three hours of the morning, also listed as excellent, were definitely not prime time. I was, I thought, finished fishing for the day, settled into other activities, thinking about dinner and tomorrow, when I glanced at my watch to see what time it wasn’t—precisely 4:25 p.m. So why not take another stab at it, I thought.
As I unloaded my butt from the comfort of the Adirondack chair in search of my rod, I spotted what I thought was a Northern Mockingbird, a quite common creature in these part, on the fence rail. I mentioned it to Susan, she deep into a novel, glanced up, confirmed my sighting—and shot me that look as if to say, “We’re reading, here!”
There was something wrong with this bird, however. I mentioned I’d never noticed how yellow the mockingbird’s beak is. Then it hit me, those words of wisdom from the ancient, lost tribe of Wiggidy Warriors, “Expect the unexpected.”
“Whoa,” says I, “that’s a Yellow-billed Cuckoo!” which was more than enough to pull Susan (vertically) from her book about girls with tattoos kicking hornets’ nests or something, binoculars from under chairs and cameras from backpacks.
Later, I happened to be checking the dictionary of the Wiggidy Warriors and noted that another definition of “birding” is: “Sometimes you just get lucky.”

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Better and Better

Northern Gannet

It was a dark and stormy morning. Fishing remained out of the question with rain and winds hitting 40 mph. Not that I didn’t have better things to do, I was fixing a balking toilet when I heard Susan yelling about something on the rock. Then I heard plenty of running from downstairs, coupled with plenty of door slamming by her and our friend, Ciba, who owns the house where we’re currently mooching a vacation stay. (Toilet repair is one way of paying back—and paying forward.)

Northern Gannet

I dashed downstairs to see a gorgeous Northern Gannet perched on the rocks in front of the house. This is one of those birds we see often enough, usually hundreds of yards away. This guy, too, was seeking shelter from the storm.
There’s that threadbare adage about silver linings … blah, blah. I prefer to think of it as good karma, generated by fixing friend’s toilets.

Northern Gannet

Monday, October 04, 2010

Some Days Are Just Better

Black-bellied Plovers

As Lance Armstrong says, “There are no bad days. Some days are just better than others.” Ain’t that the truth?
I was hyped up for this fishing trip to the Atlantic Coast. I had (make that have) boxes of hand-tied flies of my own design, my new hand-built rod for saltwater fishing and more ways to figure tidal movement than the U.S. Navy. Of course, the one thing no one can control is the weather. When I got up this morning to fish the incoming tide, the storm that had started the night before still raged. Winds were a steady 35 knots with gusts beyond belief. And rain. Fly fishing would be confined to magazine pages this day.
Well, with gourmet coffee, a good book and the love of my life beside me, I settled into a pleasant morning. Then we noticed movement in the granite boulders 100 feet in front of us. A flock of migrating Black-bellied Plovers had taken refuge in the nooks and crannies of the rocks. Braving the elements (which is a bit of an overstatement) I captured an image of these birds whose mental state best reflected my own, except that I had coffee.
And when I was about to head back for the house, a flock of 50 Common Eiders passed by. No shelter necessary for these huge sea ducks. Storm? What storm? Bring it!

Common Eiders

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

So, Where’s the Answer?

Two related, yet not related, stories popped up in my local papers today. The theme of both is the same; harnessing the wind to produce electricity. One is a story about big money, the other about not so big money. One is about pumping money into the pockets of people we’ll never know—for who knows how long. The other, about pumping electricity back into the grid—now—on a manageable budget.
First, about the fat cats who need lots of food. According to a story in this morning’s Cleveland Plain Dealer, a new industry is about to launch here. The Lake Erie Energy Development Corp., was formed a year ago to seek developers for a wind turbine project off the shores of Cleveland. Today, they announced three major players have been signed up, headed by the Bechtel Development Company of San Francisco. These are the same folks that brought us Hoover Dam, the Chunnel and thousands of other major projects. They, and their partners, will build five turbines for a demonstration project, seven miles off shore at an estimated cost of $100 million.
Stay tuned. The above story will take a while to develop. The other story is about what’s happening now. That story appeared in my local paper, The News Leader, here in Sagamore HIlls. It’s about a local dentist who has installed two vertical wind turbines at his office to generate electricity, at a cost of about $15,000 for each. I saw these turbines a day or so after they were installed and first thought they were art work.

The 30-foot-tall vertical axis turbines will produce about 2,500 kilowatt hours per year in an average 12 mph wind. This equates to around a quarter of the average energy needs of a residential home.
According to the news story, Dr. Davidson figures that wind generated electricity will cover about 10 percent of his energy needs. But here’s the cool part, Ohio, like many states, has what’s called net metering. That means, if you are producing enough energy to reverse your meter, the energy companies credit your account. You’re essentially selling electricity back to the company when you’re on vacation, for example. Bundle that with a federal 30% tax credit and state rebate incentives and you recoup the cost of your wind turbine in about five years, according to IC Green Energy, Vermilion, Ohio, the producer of these vertical axis turbines ( The company can install a complete system in five or six hours.
I know, not everyone can have a 30-foot-tall wind turbine in their front yard. Many people can, however, and they can also be pumping electricity back into the grid for the rest of us.
So what’s the answer? On one hand, we have a mega-cost project that will bring mega-watts of power, and hopefully mega-jobs to our area. On the other, we have a family-owned business, already producing machines that can help the average home owner cut energy costs—and with a good looking machine at that. As Bob Dylan pointed out nearly 50 years ago, the answer, my friends, to this and so many other problems, is blowin’ in the wind.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Long Way to Flutter By

Monarch Butterflies pause during their 3,000 mile migration

When you find yourself running low on energy; or maybe lost without a map, consider the Monarch butterfly, please.
Susan and I made the hour-long trip to Mentor Headlands State Park along Lake Erie’s shores this morning to bird the fall warbler migration. Along with the birds, we found ourselves in the midst of a massive Monarch butterfly movement as the insects moved from northern territories—by the thousands!—to their wintering grounds in the Transvolcanic Plateau region of Mexico. Depending on how you measure it, many of these half-gram insects will travel nearly 3,000 miles before they hibernate.
When you start reading about these butterflies you bump into all kinds of words you might not otherwise associate with light-weight insects. “Hibernate in caves,” for example. That’s what they do. Like bears and other hibernators (chipmunks and groundhogs come to mind) they slow their heartbeat and take a nap—like some of my retired friends.
The principal tree they like in Mexico is the Oyamel fir. We’ve been fortunate to see the hibernating Monarchs in this country near Santa Barbara, California, when they over winter in the Eucalyptus trees near Goleta.
Here, in northeast Ohio, we’re fortunate to see the bulk of migrating Monarchs from the eastern part of this country, and Canada, pass right through. Most of the insects move east of the Great Lakes then turn a southwesterly direction. When we get strong winds from the north, as we’ve had the past few days, the butterflies flutter by in prodigious numbers.
Today, thousands of them rested on trees throughout the park. I thought it interesting that of the larger fly catcher species we saw, Great-crested Flycatcher for example, no one was eating Monarchs. It was as if the birds and insects made a pact: We’re all in this migration boat together, so let’s all pull on the oars. Something like that.
It’s been estimated that about 300 million Monarchs head to Mexico for the winter. Theirs is not an easy life. If they don’t get eaten or whacked by a car along the route, there’s all kinds of stormy weather and loss of habitat to deal with once they get to Mexico.
Unlike migrating birds, the Monarchs have never travelled the route they will follow. Previous generations have died off before the journey begins. Many that start are more than three generations away from those that previously made the trip. Since its wintering grounds were discovered in the high mountains of Michoacan State west of Mexico City, scientists have studied how this critter with a tiny brain, migrates out of Mexico in the spring, moves up to its breeding areas where it produces several generations, then migrates back again to an area that the year’s last generation has never been to.
The exact purpose of their migration and their ability to make the trip at all, remains an intriguing subject for scientists studying them today. I don’t understand the mechanics or biology of the Monarchs’ movement, however, I do appreciate its beauty. Seeing them, by the thousands, is a bonus, maybe our reward, for getting out and birding.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Way Off the Beaten Track

This summer, Susan and I developed a taste for getting off the interstate highways during our travels. Among our discoveries have been Lucas, Kansas, the Grassroots Art Capital of Kansas, with its Garden of Eden and other assorted oddities. But that’s another story. Recently we found ourselves (geographically speaking) in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky. This (really) tiny town is best known for its name and not much else. Well, it is known for having elected a dog as it’s mayor—twice.
Rabbit Hash’s population varies from four to 40 people, depending on how the city boundaries are drawn. There are a couple of antique stores and two, and I use the term loosely, cafes. The most intriguing store is the General Store (where one of the dog-mayors was banned from entering by the health department). Because of flooding (the town is literally on the banks of the Ohio River) there’s not an unwarped board in the building. I think there is probably one example of everything ever built in the world jammed into that building. There’s so much stuff, floor to ceiling, that there’s no room for anything. The nostalgic aroma of sandalwood incense permeates the place, a feature I’m sure, missing when the first settlers washed up on this south bank of the river in the mid-1700s.
What piqued my curiosity was that, without spending a penny, we had a fun hour or so poking around in history—indoors and out. While across the river, in Rising Sun, Indiana, was “anchored” the Grand Victoria riverboat casino. I wondered if the folks on the boat were looking across the river and enjoying their experience as much as we.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Thinking Green at Sunset

A few moments before the green flash, your basic sunset.

One of the many fun things to do in western Michigan at the end of summer, when the fish aren’t biting and birds have yet to start migration in any serious manner, is watch the phenomenal sunsets over Lake Michigan. So it was this evening, our third here. We had sore shoulders from casting to fish that had their own agenda, which did not include us. An occasional Caspian Tern would fly by and we saw two Sanderlings playing tag with the waves. So much for birding highlights.
Watching the sun set is a ritual we always participate in. Even on some cloudy evenings we sit and hope. This was about to be our third spectacular sunset and I was showing off, talking about the elusive “green flash” some people claim to see at sunset. Other than the name, I know little about this atmospheric phenomena.
Ever the optimist, I had a camera at the ready. A friend once told me I was the definition of an optimist: A guy who carries a camera when he goes fishing.
As the sun was dropping below the horizon (I know, that’s technically incorrect), we watched the fire-ball, hard to imagine it’s really 93 million miles away—give or take a few million depending on our orbit. Fully expecting the sun to disappear as it always does, just as the “red” edge sank, it turned green! To its right was a small shaft of green light as well.
Doing a bit of research, I learned this flash of green lasts only 1.4 seconds. Three of the other four people with me also saw it. That’s when I realized I had had the cognizance to keep my finger on the shutter release and blasted away at 4.5 frames per second. Thank you, Mr. Nikon.
There are pages and pages of scientific and not-so-scientific information about green flashes at sunset. Jules Verne's 1882 novel "Le Rayon Vert" (The Green Ray) popularized the green flash as: "A green which no artist could ever obtain on his palette, a green of which neither the varied tints of vegetation nor the shades of the most limpid sea could ever produce the like! If there is a green in Paradise, it cannot be but of this shade, which most surely is the true green of Hope."
Well, I have to add, in this digital age, I was unable to manipulate the color in the photos I took to match what we actually saw. Once again, Jules Verne was right.
If you want to learn more about the green flash, caused by the same atmospheric refraction and scattering effects which produce the red sunset, a good place to start is
In uniform air, the dispersion of light rays is apparently so small that the separation of red and green images is not visible. It takes more unusual layering of the atmosphere to enhance the separation.
If you have an appetite for more information about green flashes, “An introduction to Green Flashes,” by Andrew T. Young,, will give you more than you can digest in a single setting.
As Young explains, “Green flashes are real (not illusory) phenomena seen at sunrise and sunset, when some part of the Sun suddenly changes color (at sunset, from red or orange to green or blue). The word “flash” refers to the sudden appearance and brief duration of this green color, which usually lasts only a second or two at moderate latitudes. As the area that turns green is ordinarily near the limit of the eye's resolution, these are sometimes called “green dot” displays. Green flashes are by-products of the large variations in astronomical refraction near the horizon.”
And from Elton John’s, “Rocket Man,” let me steal the line, “And all this science I don’t understand.” You don’t have to understand to be amazed and enjoy.

The elusive green flash and a green “pillar” to the right.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Don’t Take Fishing Personally

Some days they wait in line to get caught

Fishing was not on the agenda this week. I had a full plate of other tasks. Susan is off having some quality time with her mom and I had … Well, I had (have) a lot to do. Then Tom called Sunday night and said he thought we needed some time on the stream—how about Tuesday. The heat had tapered off, the fish were probably active again, the stars were aligned, etc.
For almost 10 seconds I was tempted to say no. Then I rethought my position. I do have two fishing trips planned for August and another in September. It had been a couple months since the rods were out of the cabinet, however. Maybe I did need some practice. Hey, fishing is serious business. There are thousands of mistakes to be made on the human’s part while the fish has only to make one. Fish definitely have the upper fin in this game.
Loaded with enough tackle to open a small fly shop, Tom and I, along with new-found-friend Greg, headed off to one of our favorite streams. While distracted by birds and going through the ritual of stringing up the rods, that other ritual, choosing a fly pattern, surfaced. For me, I said, it’s easy. I’m just going to pick up where I left off the last time we were here. My theory was that the fish did not get any smarter during the intervening couple of months, and, hopefully, I did not get any dumber. Tom, brow furrowed, was changing and stretching leaders, looking at some if his beautifully tied flies, and deep into making the right choice. Greg, the only one of this trio with a job, was grinning. He was just happy not to be in the office or his car heading for a meeting on this morning when the sky seemed an unnatural shade of blue.
One of those great mysteries of fly fishing, and probably why we keep coming back, is how two fishers can be virtually side by side, using the same pattern, one catching fish and the other not.
And so it was to be. On this day I was the lucky one. Tom, who has out-fished me numerous times, could only become more flustered each time he watched me dance a rainbow or brookie around the pool. When I’d complain about a fly I had tied coming apart from all the abuse by the fish, he'd mutter something like, “Just keep it up, Bubb. It’s a long walk home.” I tried not to laugh. Honest, I did. And when he did get a fish into the net, he’d lecture it, suggesting that it was about time, etc.
Some days you’re the fisher. Some days you’re the bait.

Pretty, but too small.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Peace at the Watering Hole

Coyote photographed earlier this year in Rocky Mountain National Park.

It’s easy enough to make a case for climate change in northeast Ohio this summer. We’re going through one of our longer periods of extended hot weather. Anything above 90 degrees is a big deal around here. We’ve had a month of it. Television stations, nightly, cover the subject of summer heat in the city as if it didn’t just happen yesterday.
Even with last night’s rain the thermometer was bumping against 80 degrees at 7 a.m. this morning. I opted to get my bike ride out of the way early to beat the heat. Little did I realize, the heat had already won the competition before I even had my shoes on.
The bike trail was relatively cool, at least in the shady spots. Rain puddles dotted the asphalt in the shady spots as well, adding a bit of challenge—unless you’re an eight-year-old kid who goes looking for puddles to ride through. As I neared my turnaround point, I noticed a large, dark shape in the shadows at the middle of the trail. I slowed a bit when I realized I was looking at two coyotes, drinking from a puddle. When I was about 50 feet away, the one on the left looked up at me, took another drink, then both bolted into the nearby woods.
I was at the spot where they had been in a matter of seconds, yet I could not see them in the woods. Great stealth and camouflage, I thought.
I continued to my turn-around point about 100 yards further up the trail. I made a quick turn, pumped by this close encounter of the furred kind—the reason many of us head into the wilderness. Okay, a bike trail in semi-suburbia is not exactly the wilderness. Fortunately, some of the wilderness is coming to us these days.
I immediately focused on the spot where the coyotes had been. I saw a small shape now huddled over the same puddle. It was an opossum. It could not have been three minutes between the two sightings. And while coyotes tend to prey on smaller rodents, I suspect that opossum is sometimes on the menu.
The opossum did not play possum. No panic on its part. I slowed nearly to a stop as I drifted by, giving it plenty of space on the six-foot-wide path. It watched me glide by, maybe unsure of what this colorful creature was. Its attitude was the same as we might assume when viewing an alien from outer space. Out of morbid curiosity I looked around for the coyotes. I wondered if I’d witness what I was sure would be the opossum’s last drink of water.
Nothing happened. Unlike human coming’s and going’s, when nothing happens in the animal world, it’s news.

Friday, July 09, 2010

What’s Old is New Again

A silly way to manage stress

About a quarter century ago, I was attending a thoroughly boring business trade show when a conference-session sign caught my eye. The topic, “Managing Stress,” had nothing to do with why I was on this assignment. Sitting in just seemed like a good idea. In retrospect, I’m unsure if that session was part of the convention I was attending, or one of the other business meetings going on in the mega-plex hotel.
The room was full of people who needed to manage their stresses. I was, in part, captivated by the title of the session: Who would want to manage stress? I wanted to know how to get rid of it.
Here’s where I save you the $200 some 75 people in the room had parted with to hear this guru of stress management cast his pearls of wisdom. I’ll reduce the one hour of hocus pocus to a sentence or two. You manage stress, first, by putting a rubber band on your wrist. When you feel stress coming on, snap the rubber band and it “shocks” the stress out of you. Or, it snaps you back to reality, which is somehow not as stressful.
This memory came back to me earlier this week when Susan returned home with a bag full of distractions and rewards to use on our grandchildren who were coming for a week’s stay. In the bag were what looked like colorful rubber bands.
“What’re these for,” I asked.
“They’re silly bands.”
“Hmmmm. So, whatda they do?”
“Do? They really don’t do anything. Kids wear them and trade them. It’s a fad. It’s a fun thing.”
Okay, I’m all for fun. These silly bands come in a plethora of shapes, sizes, colors and themes, I learned from my grandson. Some glitter, others glow in the dark. Some are mundane while others are highly sought after. He then pulled out a shopping bag and revealed some of his collection of silly bands he had brought with him. He assured me he had plenty more at home. Apparently, the trading of these things has gotten so hot and distracting in schools, they’ve been banned in many places. Zero tolerance for rubber bands.
Throughout the week, as we’ve visited various museums, swimming pools and public events, I’ve paid some attention to what young kids had on their arms—other than tattoos, I mean. Sure enough. From a single silly band to dozens, kids of all ages were decorated in these colorful rings of plastic. Only they’re not rings. They’re shapes of everything from numbers, to buildings, to animals to foodstuff. There seems to be no end to the variety of silly bands a kid can find and wear.
I noticed that when they are on the wearer’s arm, they all look alike. I mentioned that to my grandson and got the full eye-roll that said volumes about the generation gap of 60 years we share.
After several hours at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History today, he asked if he could put his silly bands—stretching from his wrists to his elbows—into one of my pockets until we got home. I agreed, then asked why. He said they were getting too tight and causing him stress. I told him to snap out of it.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Beating the Heat

Northern Watersnake

Susan and I were wondering if there would be enough juice in the thermometer this morning. We’re having a heat wave here. The red stuff (What do they use in this modern-day world since mercury is probably banned?) was at the 80-degree mark and it was only 8 a.m. With two grandkids here for a visit, we knew the solution to keeping cool on a day like this: creek walk!

After loading a lot of stuff we wouldn’t need into a backpack, and forgetting things we would need, plus a light lunch, four of us headed for Chippewa Creek in the Brecksville section of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Forgetting the binoculars definitely added to the challenge.

Although water level was down, the stream was pleasantly cool. There seemed to be more fish in the stream than I can remember. I took that to be a healthy sign. About five minutes into the hike, we encountered a first for us on this small creek, a northern water snake. It was the first of two we’d see by day’s end.

To the credit of the grandkids, neither got all scared and screamy. In fact, they were curious about the snake and all the other creatures we encountered on our five-hour cooling off hike. Hiking in a creek not only cools the body, it awakens an interest in nature for kids like nothing else can—except maybe a bird walk. Fish, however, seem to tolerate the incessant chatter and rock tossing of an eight year old and a 3.5 year old more than birds.

Some words strike fear into one's heart, such as, "Hey Papa! Is this your other camera?"

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Step Into the Future

Early morning in the Cuyahoga Valley backcountry

If you could plan a trail in a national park, what would be your criteria?
Last evening the Greater Akron Audubon Society chapter hosted Lynn Garrity, trail planner for the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Garrity has the monumental, and somewhat envious job of putting together a new trail management plan for our 33,000-acre gem. The last plan, such as it is, was done 25 years ago. It’s time for a makeover.
Times have changed, people have changed and national parks have to change. Change is, allegedly, good. The challenge is preserving the historic reason for the park, yet satisfying the needs of its visitors.
The CVNP, one of 50 national parks (there are many more sites administered by the National Park Service) and consistently in the top 10 of “Most Visited” with its 1.5 million annual visitors, has 106 miles of trails. Add in connecting trails of county and city parks that surround this outstanding facility between Cleveland and Akron, and you come up with about 184 miles of recreation trails. Currently, there are multi-use trails, bridle paths, specific hiking trails, plus the waterway itself.
“In the last 25 years,” said Garrity, “things like mountain bikes and trail running have come into existence. Things that planners could not foresee.”
Her mission, which she has enthusiastically accepted, is to come up with a plan that will make everyone happy—or make as few people as possible, unhappy.
“Our number one goal,” she said, “is to provide a trail network that creates a high-quality visitor experience for a variety of trail users.”
Her job sort of reminds me of a juggler who balances six spinning plates on five different sticks. On one hand is preservation of historic sites, while on the other hand is preservation of the natural beauty of the park; non-consumptive use, I’ll call it. On the third hand is the need to provide space for activities that (aaaammmm, I have to be careful here) tend toward consumptive use, in the sense of damaging trails or distracting from the experience of others. Right, I’m talking about off-trail bicyclists and equestrians. It’s an application of the 80/20 rule: 80% of the problem is caused by 20% of the people.
So, what do you think? How should Garrity and her team tackle, and wrestle with this octopus? Some public hearings have been held and more input is needed. If you’ve hiked, or biked, or ridden your trusty steed in this, or any park, you’ve no doubt said, “why don’t they …” or, “If I was designing a trail …” Well, here’s your chance. For more on the planning process and how you can participate, check out the Web site, If you want to contact Garrity and get on her newsletter and email list, drop her a line, with your ideas, at
Meanwhile, get out and enjoy the summer. Daylight only gets shorter after June 21st, you know.

Yellow Warblers abound in the CVNP

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Just One of Those Days

Peregrine Falcon, up close and personal

It started out to be just another day of bird census work in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park for Susan and me. It turned into one of the more exciting days of the summer—so far.
Heading south on Riverview Road near Peninsula, we spotted some of our birding friends standing in the middle of the road where it passes beneath I-80. This is a spot known for nesting Peregrine Falcons the past three years, so our assumption was that they were looking at a bird high above in the superstructure of the bridge.
Not so. The bird was sitting on the guard rail next to Riverview Road. I have to remember to wait for the car to stop rolling before I jump out at one of these exciting happenings. Especially when I’m the driver. But that’s another story. Sitting there, posing like it was an everyday happening for Peregrine Falcons, was a fledgling. The bird seemed to be mostly talons and big eyes. Terrifyingly cute like most juveniles. Cautiously blocking any attempt the bird might make to get on the road, was Cuyahoga Falls resident Pat Haddad. Along with Pat were veteran birders Bill Osborne, Bob Furst and Judy Tisdale.

Chad and Chris Saladin approach—cautiously

The bird seemed unconcerned about our concern for its welfare. While we discussed what to do and who to call, it checked out the local starling population that seemed to be part of the brunch menu. Bob jumped in his SUV and headed for the park ranger station at the nearby Boston Store. Far below, on the valley floor, we saw two people photographing something above them on the bridgeworks. We discerned it was Chad and Chris Saladin, Peregrine Falcon nest monitors in this area. After more jumping and yelling on our part than the Cleveland Browns do in a daily workout, we got their attention.

Chad and Chris do a quick inspection to be sure the bird is not injured. Bill Osborne looks on.

They immediately recognized our plight and headed up to resolve the issue. With expert handling, including really thick gloves, Chad and Chris captured the wayward fledgling, a female Chad said, then released the bird. He said she just started flying two days before and this was the fifth time he had to rescue her from the guard rail. The bird flew off as best it could in the general direction of its parent who waited above with a tasty Rock Pigeon treat.
When most of your views of this species are while it’s perched hundreds of feet away, or flying at 200+ miles per hour, having one sit for a portrait turns any day into something special. Chad and Chris are just a couple of the many unsung heroes in this area helping to protect these special birds.

Happiness is freedom of flight in a national park as Chad releases the falcon

Monday, June 14, 2010

Rainy Days and Mondays …

Rainy Monday morning solitude

I glanced at the leaden sky as I loaded on my gear. I rationalized the dreary weather with the thought that it was not quite 7 a.m. and maybe the sun decided to sleep in. It was Monday, after all. Today was day-four of the annual Akron Audubon/Summit County Nesting Bird Census. And while any excuse to get into the Cuyahoga Valley National Park is good, this study is particularly important. It’s been going on for more than 30 years and is beginning to show some trending data regarding birds in this region.
Since birds can’t do much about weather, I figured the least I could do was play the game on their terms. Most people take a rain check when it comes to birding in the rain. I think it offers a whole different perspective and provides another window on nature.
Although it wasn’t raining as I started, I prepared. These days, I carry so many electronic gadgets, I feared if it rained hard enough, I might electrocute myself. In the end, I did not have enough small plastic bags to protect all my stuff. I opted to sacrifice my wallet since the plastic cards will endure and what little bit of paper money I had could be laundered—so to speak.
The first hour went well. Adequate numbers of birds were about, including an Orchard Oriole, always a special sighting in this park. About the time I reached the furthest extent of my tether, so to speak, the rain started. It was just a light drizzle, the kind that lulls one into thinking maybe rain gear isn’t necessary. Next thing you know you’re soaked and scrambling to protect your valuables.
I was glad that I paid the few extra bucks for the GoreTex rain jacket. It actually seemed to be working as advertised. Although the humidity was certainly rising, I seemed to be relatively dry, at least from the waist up.
While most birding activity shut down, or moved to the interior of the forest where it was more sheltered, it seemed obvious that life goes on, even in the rain. A Yellow Warbler stood on a branch with a large insect; lunch for the kids. A Gray Catbird passed in front of me with nesting material. Two American Robins copulated on a wood fence post.
I thought of the many times, fishing with my dad in the rain (he never stopped) when he’d respond to my whining, saying, “You won’t melt.” And he was right, of course. He was also wise enough not to add, “and you might learn something.”

In case anyone shows up today ...

Monday, June 07, 2010

Learning from the Locals

Hmmmm, looks like dinner.

On our way home from the recent trip out west, Susan and I stopped in St. Louis for a few days to visit with her relatives. As a way of keeping me happy (We have a prenuptial agreement that I do not have to go to St. Louis in June, July or August when heat and humidity are off the charts.), I was invited to fish a private lake while in town. And since it doesn’t take much to lure me into fishing, I graciously accepted the invite. According to my host, the fish in this lake were (alternately) dying of old age or had to take turns swimming there were so many.
I was hoping one of the locals might be about so I could ask what the fish were hitting, but as luck would have it, I was fishing alone that first morning. Apparently I’d have to fall back on my 60-plus years of experience, not always a reliable source.
As I lined my rod I was keeping one eye on the dark clouds scudding overhead, one eye on a Great Blue Heron at the end of the earthen dam, and one eye on a Scarlet Tanager that had flown into the tree above the heron. The lightning-strike flash of the heron, instantly followed by the clap of thunder splash made by the fish it had just pinioned with its beak, served to focus my attention on the task at hand.
The heron seemed to be out matched by the large catfish. The bird wisely tossed the fish to its side, higher up on the dry land at the top of the dam. At nearly the same instant, two young raccoons dashed out of the cover of weeds at the edge of the woods. The frightened heron bobbed when it should have weaved, as one raccoon nimbly grabbed the fish in its mouth. The pair of thieves, both wearing black masks so identifying the perpetrators will be tough, dashed into the woods.
Not to cave in to personification, however, the heron looked right, then left and seemed a bit bewildered.
Okay, I thought. First lesson from the locals is not to toss onto the bank any fish you’re planning to have for dinner.

Teeth marks on your thumb at the end of the day is the best indicator of some great bass fishing.