Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Night To Howl

Seven Degrees. Wife’s out of town. No wind or snow. The Full Wolf Moon. A perfect night to howl!
Bundled in enough clothing to open a small outlet store, I headed south on a trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in hopes of adding a few night birds to my “100-species-in-January” bird list. Cabin fever doesn’t have a chance if you’re a birder. Every waking moment is spent planning one wacky thing after another. Fellow birders reported having passed the damn-near-impossible goal of 100 early last week. I checked my numbers and found that I was about 60 short of the goal. It was January 30. I was in trouble.
The amazing reflection of the sun’s light, bouncing off Luna’s face only lured me deeper into the woods. How can the light be so bright when the sun is 91 million miles away, give or take a million? Then add on the 250,000 or so miles to reflect the light back to Earth. Some questions are best answered with, hmmmmm.
I wondered if I’d be able to hear the familiar singing of Great-horned Owls through my almost-too-tight hat and face mask. The crunch of boots on day-old snow, mixed with heavy breathing, had the potential to cancel any owl calls. The only thing to do was stop moving—from time to time. I walked and waited, glimpsing the moon through the barren branches.
I’m still unsure if the shivers literally running up my back, were caused by the cold or the unannounced, high-pitched song of the coyotes. My hair (what there is of it) tingled like the time I was caught in an electrical storm high in the mountains. I was afraid to move, yet the adrenaline was screaming at me to run—fast. I comforted my pounding heart with the knowledge that there have only be two known instances of coyotes killing humans, whereas every year domestic dogs kill 86 people. Comforting thoughts always help in times of panic. I also knew that three is a lucky number in Japan. You know, third time’s the charm … Does that apply to animal attacks?
It sounded as if an entire pack of wild beasts was standing next to me. I tried to discern individual voices so I could scratch the number in the snow—just in case. Bravado, machismo and foolishness kicked in. I thought about joining in on the chorus, then remembered I despise karaoke. I really wanted to see them. I turned and looked. In fact, my head was spinning like some character in an exorcist movie. The shuffling of my feet and rustling of my clothing must have alerted them. Choir practice was over as abruptly as it started.
Stillness pounded in my ears and in my head so loud I wanted to use my mittened hands to hold back the non-noise.
All that moonlight does make you think crazy thoughts. I imagined how easy it would be to drive with no headlights on a night like this. Maybe even drive with my eyes closed! It’s the siren seductiveness of the moon that is most disturbing. In a way, being seduced is what leads to the crazy behavior, I suppose. Why else would I be standing in the woods in seven-degree weather? Luna just wants to lure us into a deep kiss, then be gone in the morning. She wants to give us the comfort of a cool pillow. Momentary pleasure—it’s still pleasure. She makes promises she never intends to keep. She owes you nothing. And yet, and yet, we always come back. One more look. One more kiss. Just let me sleep and be on your way. Don’t say a thing. Pretend you don’t know me. Pretend you don’t owe me. Just go.
And she’s gone.

Friday, January 22, 2010

New Feeder Bird

Red-shouldered Hawk

Now that the snow has dwindled to puddles around the yard, and mountains only slightly shorter than Everest in the parking lots, feeder activity has slowed proportionally. The usual suspects coming and going.
During my third cup of coffee this morning I was working on the mental exercise of what happens to the white color of snow when it melts. Certainly a mystery. I must have blinked, because when I looked up, there sat a gorgeous Red-shouldered Hawk. This was the first of his kind I’ve seen at our feeder.
For a fraction of second—that spanned eons—we locked eyes. I’m sure we both had the same thought: So, what happens next today?

Red-shouldered Hawk

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Birds In Winter

Long-eared Owl

There’s been a lot of talk in these parts this winter about a lack of raptors. Based on reports to the Ohio Ornithological Society ( listserv, that appears to be the case. This somewhat dire news did not deter Susan and I, along with our birding buddies Karin Tanquist and Pat Coy, as we headed out for our annual winter birding expedition to Killdeer Plains in west-central Ohio.
Killdeer Plains Wildlife Management Area is one of the more premiere spots in the state for finding overwintering raptors. In addition, the menu concocted for the trip is always outstanding. This year’s main dish—a new quiche recipe—as well as the blueberry pie dessert, were amazing. (This is beginning to sound like some of my fishing-trip stories during which I catch no fish yet have to write about something.)
Monday was a perfect day for birding: Temperature hanging at a bone-chilling 31 degrees, freezing fog, drizzle and visibility about two miles. The birding started slow, then tapered off. We hit the hot spots, where in the past we’ve seen some special Ohio winter birds, only to discover few or none of the cold-weather arrivals. Horned Larks were poorly represented and Snow Buntings and longspurs, nonexistent.
The sighting of a beautifully colored male Northern Harrier raised our hopes as the bird drifted over a high-grass field. A single Red-headed Woodpecker was lure enough to launch us out of the car. Furiously we dug for spotting scopes, which we knew were somewhere in the trunk beneath a pile of coats, boots and picnic baskets. We watched a pair of woodpeckers do their thing, seemingly oblivious to us. The fog and drizzle acted like a blanket over the usual outside noises. Sounds of woodpeckers’ hammering was muffled, as was their grating, croaking calls.
Off we went to the owl grove, a spot known to produce as many as four species of owls—if you’re unbelievably lucky. We ran into two other birders there. One fellow had a report from earlier in the morning that three Long-eared Owls had been seen; the other birder had seen nothing all morning. That meant we had a 50-50 chance of seeing something—or nothing.
We prowled the area to no avail. Finally, Pat and Karin interrogated the young man who had the secondhand report of three owls (waterboarding was not used at any time) and discovered the location of the alleged Long-eared Owls.
Sure enough, exactly where they were supposed to be, were at least two of the trio. One bird seemed as interested in us as we were of it.
And so the day went, long periods of boredom and personal insults, followed by brief seconds of spectacular sightings. For example: Driving one of the many back roads we happened upon a flock of small brown birds, certainly not the first of the day. We had our usual “discussion” of just how many sparrows were in the bunch—like it really mattered. I glanced up and, about 50 feet from us, stood an immature Bald Eagle atop a tree stump! It was methodically eating the entrails of some hapless critter. Wow! Would he sit still for a photo? The thought was barely out of my head when he was gone.
After a fruitless search of the area for Short-eared Owls—always a target bird for us—we decided to bag it and start the two-plus hour trip home. The fact that it was so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of you, also played into our decision. But first, we pulled off the road to finish the blueberry pie.
Adequately stoked with sugar and cold coffee, we left, reminiscing about things I’m not sure ever happened. Then, atop a barren tree, silhouetted against the graying sky, I saw the unmistakable shape of a Short-eared Owl. The car skidded to a stop as the bird fluttered in the headlights like a giant moth. It landed in the nearby corn stubble to our right. There, it stood on a mound of dirt giving us adequate, if not well-lighted looks; the perfect punctuation mark for another great day of birding.

Long-eared Owl

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sure Cure for Cabin Fever

Snow Bunting

The best way to cure a case of cabin fever is to get out of the cabin. Hardly a news flash. The 14 inches of snow on our deck railing and bushes was hindering our view of the ground-feeding birds. That had me contemplating running out to knock the snow away. And that led to mounting a full blown winter birding expedition to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which is essentially our back yard.
An eMail late last night from birding buddy Dwight Chasar sealed the deal. He noted a sighting of Snow Buntings here in the park, less than 10 miles from home. Typically, we load up the car with scopes, hot soup and birding friends and head for the west side of the state to see this species in winter.
Driving a few miles between our second cup of coffee and lunch would be just what we needed to cure our first cast of cabin fever for 2010.
The birds must have received the same eMail as we since they were right where Dwight said they were suppose to be. A dozen or so Snow Buntings, mixed in with an equal number of Horned Larks greeted us before we got out of the car, into the 18-dgree cold. American Tree Sparrows were also in abundance, feeding on scraps left from last season’s corn harvest.
Photo opportunities were marginal at best. There’s something about lugging all that gear around that compels a photographer to take pictures, regardless of shooting conditions. The only way to guarantee an outstanding photo is to not take the gear out of the car. Or worse, leave the gear at home and you’ll be faced with at least a half dozen images that would make the cover of National Geographic. I have a desk full of pictures never taken. When I say to Susan, “Remember that time …” her eyes glaze over and she’ll demand I load the cameras. And that’s a good thing, because just the preparation sheds that gloominess of cabin fever for me.

Horned Lark

Friday, January 08, 2010

Winter’s Day Challenge

House Finch

When Su Snyder, inveterate member of the Ohio Ornithological Society (OOS,, tossed down the virtual gauntlet, make that snow mitten, challenging other members of the society to a “Snow Day Birding Contest,” January 8, I yawned, then checked my jam-packed social calendar. Su was asking birders throughout the state to do what they’d probably be doing anyway on this snowy day—look out the window and report the birds you see at your feeders. Flyovers would count, too.
I, of course, first checked the list of prizes to determine if rising to this challenge would be worth the effort. I had big plans for this snow-bound day: Go through a stack of five-year-old magazines, sew on a couple buttons missing from a favorite shirt, then maybe take on the sock drawer if I felt up to it.
Whoa, there! Su was pulling out the stops for this one. She would be the final judge of all entries, awarding coveted things like OOS patches and decals. This was my kind of event!

Red-bellied Woodpecker

It was a balmy 15 degrees when I sat down with my second cuppa of the day. Snow swirled around the feeder array. Any hoped-for photography was out of the question. Our windows are spotted with the flotsam and jetsam of winter: Remains of window strikes, previously digested crabapples, and some things that defy definition. I got the camera out anyway.
I got lost in the number of species and numbers of birds. As is my want, I deviated from the path. I paid more attention to colors and (sorry for the personification) personalities of visitors on this challenging day. Safe and warm, I watched the comings and goings. More than one bird looked in at me. Was it possible that the birds were keeping a list, too?
Forget that we live virtually within the boundaries of a national park. While we get our share of birds, the species list is not long and includes only the usual suspects. I know that I don’t have a snowball’s chance of winning one of those snappy decals for my car. I have, however, had a thoroughly enjoyable day doing what I’d probably be doing without that incentive. Thanks, anyway, for the added challenge, Su.

European Starling