Friday, March 26, 2010

An Unreal Walk in the Woods

The sky is falling!

It was a kind of science fiction day, Friday, in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I had a new piece of photo gear I wanted to get familiar with, so I headed down to the Station Road Bridge area. The thermometer was bumping against 33 degrees, sun so bright it hurt my eyes, sky was bluebird blue, and light snow was falling. What?
I walked about a half mile, finding and photographing only a frustrated White-throated Sparrow who couldn’t seem to figure out the weather, either. Suddenly, a chunk of the blue sky fell, right before my eyes. I thought, “Where’s Chicken Little when you need him?” That piece of the sky landed on a moss-covered branch in the middle of a newly forming beaver pond. Turns out, it was in fact an Eastern Bluebird. He looked back over his shoulder at me—through the snow and sunshine. “What’s next,” I asked.
As Lance Armstrong says, “There are no bad days. Some days are just better than others.”

Eastern Bluebird

Playing the Name Game

Red-winged Blackbird in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park

As a kid, I had some trouble with birds’ names, probably because I didn’t listen well enough. I recall the challenges of the Mourning Dove. When I asked my dad the name of the bird that was always calling for rain when we went fishing (his contention), he said it was the Morning Dove. Later, I thought he meant Moaning Dove. Years later I learned it as Mourning Dove—kind of a cool compromise when you think about it.
Another species that challenged me was the Red-winged Blackbird. As a kid, I called it Red-shouldered Blackbird because the bird’s wing was obviously black and it had a red patch on its shoulder. I finally got that one sorted out—until I went to Cuba. There it was, bigger than life; the Red-shouldered Blackbird. And, guess what? It looks exactly like our Red-winged Blackbird. At least the males look alike. The females are completely different in the blackbird species.
Here, the Red-winged Blackbirds, at least the males, are conspicuous and noisy. In Cuba, we hunted long and hard until we found a pair. As an aside, it says something about the non-traffic in Cuba that our bus driver just stopped the bus in the middle of the highway so we could all pile out to see the bird. This tactic was quite common since you more often had to watch for hay-burning horses than gas-burning horses.
So, there he was, a single male Red-shouldered Blackbird, squeaking a bit, not acting out as our Red-wing Blackbirds do at this time of the year. The female, all black, was nearby, darting in and out of the high grass, obviously trying to frustrate anyone with a camera in hand.
Though the males might look similar, there are differences. Whereas our Red-winged Blackbirds are ubiquitous at this time of the year, their Cuban cousins are limited in where they can be found; just a few areas on the whole island. Their voices are a bit different, as well. And even though their voices are different and non-musical to the human ear, both birds’ songs translate into, “welcome to spring time!”

Red-shouldered Blackbird in the Zapata region, Cuba.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

… More Than You Bargain For

Mystery bird

My dad used to give me the sage advice: Sometimes ya get more than ya bargain for. This was usually in reference to my ending up on the short end of a fight I picked with some bigger kid, and, later in life, in reference to cars or girls—or both. But there’s a positive side to the saying and, often enough, it applies to birding.
Tuesday was one of those days when Susan and I had full schedules that kept us passing likes ships in the night, so to speak. Late in the afternoon she suggested we make a really quick trip down to Indigo Lake in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park where, the day before, six Long-tailed Ducks had been sighted. The Long-tailed Duck is a bird we don’t see often—or often enough. It’s a sea duck, so having them inland is a treat—though not unprecedented. It’s also a quite vocal bird (thus its former name, Old Squaw) that nests on the Arctic tundra. Monday will go down in the Ohio record-keeping books as a good day for Long-tailed Ducks. They were reported in bunches (that’s a technical ornithological term) all over the state.
I suggested we use my car because my spotting scope was still bouncing around in the trunk with fishing gear. Equipment from two or three excursions often gets jumbled in my trunk. I thought about grabbing the camera, but it was down stairs and, besides, we wouldn’t see anything special enough to justify lugging the gear along. (Saying that is the one sure way to guarantee the picture of a lifetime—missed.)
About a half mile north of the lake Susan yelled, “Look at that bird!”
To my credit, I managed to keep the car only slightly out of the ditch while looking at a huge white bird atop a tree, making a U-turn and scrambling out of the car—all without taking the binoculars away from my eyes. We looked up in amazement at what appeared to be a Snowy Owl. After we blinked our eyes we realized we were looking at a partially albino, or leucistic, Red-tailed Hawk. It was not a true albino because we could see some black on it. In fact, as it soared with three other red tails, its wing pattern was a spectacular alternating black and white.
If you’re thinking this was the photo op of a lifetime, your right. I did have my handy point-and-shoot camera, with which I took the (I hesitate to call them pictures) photos shown here. I think you’ll get the idea, however, that this was a special bird, the chance of a lifetime—and more than we bargained for.

Leucistic Red-tailed Hawk

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Getting Back to Reality

Since my head and heart were still birding in Cuba, I decided the best way to get back to the reality of northeast Ohio was to go fishing. The temperatures were in the low 60s and reports that steelhead trout were heading upstream did not seem to be exaggerated.
The end of this story is that I did not catch any fish. Among the millions of excuses and rationalizations a fisher has is that it’s not always about catching fish …
It seemed that I was doing all the right things, and others around me, who were catching, were doing all the wrong things. How could that be? Didn’t the fish know what they were supposed to do under specific conditions?
Apparently not. And, apparently, they didn’t care.
I passed through all the mental hoops as I tried to figure out why I remained fishless. Bad luck, wrong fly choice, water, sun, wind … I soon ran through the gamut of reasons.
It’s really not about me (this time). It’s about the fish. The fish is neutral. It swims, eats and tries to procreate. End of story. I watched some of the other fishers who were catching. A grandfather/grandson team just down stream from me caught three nice steelies in about five minutes. I couldn’t contain myself. I got out of the water, walked to their position and politely asked what pattern they were using. The kid just chuckled. The old guy (probably my age) said, “It doesn’t matter. I’m using a muddler minnow and he’s using some sort of white thing. I think the fish’d hit a bare hook, today.” I hate it when another fisher says that.
I walked back to my position trying to figure out if that was good or bad advice. Well, whatever. It didn’t help my catching. I did realize, however, I was making fishing more complicated that it needed to be, or is. I suspect the 80/20 rule applies here as it does with much of life: 20 percent of the fishers catch 80 percent of the fish, regardless.
I watched a kid, maybe 10 years old, fight and land a steelhead that was about half as long as he. I thought, I should turn that kid in to the truant officer, then reconsidered. He was out fishing with his dad on a gorgeous spring day. He’d learn more here than anything taught in some stuffy classroom.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Choosing a National Bird

Cuban Trogon

When it comes to bling, I think Cubans invented the word. Forget about the olive-drab clothing pictured in the not-so news media. Although the majority of our time was spent in the rural areas of the country during our recent bird survey research, we did stop in Havana on our way in and out.
Fortunately, two of the days we were in town were Sundays, the day Cubans come out to play. The kids playing in the streets were like ragamuffin kids anywhere. Surprisingly, at least to me, was the fact that teenagers, at least in Havana, dressed like teens in America. It was the adults who really put on a show. It might have been Sunday on the calendar, but it was Saturday night on the street. From the guys with the six-pack abs to the women in four-inch spike heels, Cubans know how to dance and play.
All this appreciation for aesthetics spills into other aspects of daily life as well. Pastel-color buildings punctuate the drab gray streets with buildings in need of rehabilitation. Vintage US automobiles (sometimes called Yank Tanks) drift like butterflies through the narrow passageways of Habana Vieja (Old Havana), adding bling among the tiny, dull Russian Ladas. In many cases the original paint has long vaporized from these denizens of Detroit’s design boards, only to be replaced with whatever paint the owner can find; colors Detroit never dreamed of. How they keep these 60-year-old cars running is a well-kept secret and a tribute to the ingenuity of the people.

A day on the streets in Habana Vieja

In the field, when I saw my first Cuban Trogon, I was flummoxed by the brilliant colors. We had been observing a Cuban Tody when the trogon, not to be outdone, flew in over our heads. The Cuban naturalist with us explained how the colors of the bird are reflected in the country’s flag—red, white and blue.

Cuban Tody

It was easy to see how this species was chosen as emblematic of a struggling nation, yet I’d hate to have been a judge if other birds, like the Cuban Tody, or Cuban Emerald had been in the competition.

Cuban Trogon

Monday, March 15, 2010

All Roosters Crow in the Same Language

Cuban Bee Hummingbird—the world’s smallest bird.

Trying to write about our recent bird research study in Cuba in 600 words--or less--is a fool’s task. I’ll just give you a few impressions—lessons—I’ve carried home. I have about 2000 images to edit, however, those can wait.
Susan and I were fortunate to participate in the Caribbean Conservation Trust’s study of endemic and migratory birds of Cuba from March 1 through 12. And although it was about Cuban birds, it’s impossible not to encounter politics. We read the suggested books beforehand and felt somewhat prepared. Lesson one: Don’t believe much of what you read about Cuba. The people we met looked at us in the same way we looked at them; both trying to see the horns, pointy tails and pitchforks of the other.
While our primary mission was bird surveying, we had ample opportunity to meet with and talk to kids and adults on the street. Lesson two: Cubans are highly literate. Kids go to school from 7:30 AM to 4 PM. Among their stated education goals is the challenge for all children to learn two languages besides Spanish.
It’s a mistake to hold an American measuring stick up to the physical structures, or infrastructure, of Cuba: Lesson three: The outside of a building might appear shabby (by our definition), however, inside you’ll find simplicity and comfort; lives free from the incessant need to have more. Yet, we kept wondering if they had enough …

Orlando Garrido talks with us, surrounded by specimens of Cuba’s endemic birds.

We read that one thing people of Cuba appreciate about the current United States’ embargo is that it keeps Americans from visiting their country. Lesson four: Everywhere we traveled we were welcomed; into the home of Cuba’s premiere ornithologist, Orlando Garrido, in Havana as well as into the front seat of a proud kid’s beautifully restored 1956 Chevy in Playa Largo.

A 1956 Chevy in all its glory.

Not only would the birds we sought be different, we were gently warned that the people would be, too. In both cases this was true. Lesson five: The world’s smallest bird, the Cuban Bee Hummingbird is certainly a contender in the most glamorous category; people ride bicycles through city streets carrying sheet cakes—singlehandedly. Now that’s different.
It was noted that once we got away from the large cities, we’d experience the poverty of the land. Since our mission was surveying birds, we were away from cities most of the time. What we discovered was verdant rural farmland, unfamiliar crops, and roosters that begin crowing at 4 AM.