Sunday, May 30, 2010

Curing White-line Fever

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at sunset. Something you won’t see from the Interstate.

There’s something great about driving the Interstate highways across America—I just don’t know what it is. Susan and I were hardly out of St. Louis a week ago when a serious case of white-line fever hit us.
We looked up all the antidotes and discovered there is only one that seems to really work—get off the road as soon as possible. It worked like a charm. Before we reached Kansas City we were kicking up dust; not worried about gravel tattooing the underside of our car. We bagged our first Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on the main street of a little town in east-central Kansas. We managed all of Kansas (except for a few miles on I-70) and most of eastern Colorado all the way into Boulder, on roads that kept us in touch with the real world.
There are many wonders to be seen in the backcountry. For me at least, the best of the best is the lack of litter on a stick, i.e. billboard advertising. But that’s a whole ‘nother rant I’ll save for the future.
Let me add my voice to those who recommend getting off the highway—and out of the car for that matter—to see what’s so great about America. Theme parks and DizzyWorld places are just fine—if you have no imagination, or want your kids to live someone else’s dream.
The real world is sitting on a swivel stool in Hoxie, Kansas, having a root beer float made by a lady who has been working in the store for longer than she cares to remember. The real world is about crawling around on your hands and knees, eyeball to eyeball with a collard lizard in the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve in Strong City, Kansas. You’re going to get hot and dirty, however, you are also going to build memories that will last a lot longer than a T-shirt.

A real soda fountain in Hoxie, Kansas.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Matching the Hatch

Looks like dinner

Matching the hatch is one of those things fly fishers do to separate us from other, more sensible fishers. The object of the exercise is to determine what trout are feeding on, then search through the endless number of flies we carry in the multitude of pockets of our fishing vests, in hope of having a pattern that matches, exactly, the trout’s chosen food.
The end result is that we more often than not, fall back on one of three basic fly patterns since matching the hatch takes a considerable amount of skill and patience, two things you’re supposed to have as a fly fisher, but seldom do.
So it was that fishing buddy, Tom, and I struck off into the wilderness of a private fishing venue recently, laden with all the possible fly patterns any sensible fisher would, or could, carry. This was our initial spring fishing trip. I’ve been birding like crazy this spring and Tom is getting ready to climb onto the cutting board to repair a rotator cuff problem, so fishing has been put on the back burner of late.
While walking back to a special spot on the stream we both took note of any bugs flying near the water. There was the occasional flop of trout rising to pick off bugs, a sound that makes any fly fisher’s heart pump a bit faster. We arrived at the spot and, without ceremony, each took a favored position. Actually, I stopped walking first because I could not bear to watch those fish jump and me not have a hook in the water. Tom scurried across a wood bridge and took a place a bit further up stream.
I made a dozen casts with no success while Tom had a hookup on his second or third throw. Suddenly, he was into his second fish. I was beginning to wonder what I had done wrong in my life that I should receive such severe punishment. Then, things shut down for Tom. No fish for either of us for too long. We tried an array of patterns, seeking to match the hatch, even though there was no hatch and we did not have a clue about what the fish were feeding on.
As a birder, you’re never at a loss for something to do when the fish aren’t biting. I watched several Common Grackles search for food on the opposite bank, then head off to the bushes where they probably had nests. I noted that when they made a low pass over the stream, fish swarmed in a line beneath them. Curious behavior, I thought. I paid closer attention. On more than one occasion, as the grackles passed over the stream, they defecated. Is that what the trout were rising to eat?
I searched through my fly boxes, looking for something white and stringy. I found the perfect match for this hatch, a well-used white wooly bugger pattern. It took two casts and I was into fish—big time. By the time I had caught and released a half dozen fish, some rainbows, some brownies, Tom had moved closer so see what all the action was about. I shouted over, “Switch to anything white.” Then I briefly explained my theory. Bang! Another fish.
Without a word he started digging through his fly boxes looking for anything white. A few minutes later I looked up and he, too, was hauling in a nice fat brown trout.
He shouted back, “You made a believer out of me!”

Looks like … Renamed: The Poop Fly

Monday, May 17, 2010

Lessons From an Endangered Species

Kirtland's Warbler 14 May 2010 Magee Marsh

How do you handle the paparazzi when you’re a major star and everyone wants a piece of you? Be polite, ignore them, eat your fill and be on your way.
Birders from all over the country are stalking our neck of the woods these days looking for, and enjoying, elusive wood warblers and other migrating species. We are fortunate to have, geographically speaking, a world-famous migrant trap only a couple hours from where we live. Magee Marsh in northwestern Ohio (aka for old timers as Crane Creek) is known throughout the birders’ world as the best spot in the country to see a majority of the members of the wood warbler family.
Our spot in Ohio has recorded 36 members of that family which numbers about 56 nationwide. Some species never reach the east or north; some are extinct. Since they all have wings, potentially, they could all join the party.
The rarest of these colorful birds is the Kirtland’s Warbler. It’s rare because it nests primarily, almost exclusively, in the Michigan jack pine forests. It’s endangered because of habitat loss and predation from Brown-headed Cowbirds. Kirtland's Warbler is dependant upon fire to provide small trees and open areas that meet its rigid nesting-habitat requirements.
The jack pine requires fire to open its cones and spread its seeds. The warbler first appears in a nesting area about six years after a fire when the new growth is dense and about 1.5 to 2.0 meters high. After about 15 years, when trees are 3.0 to 5.0 meters high, the warbler leaves the area. The female Kirtland's Warbler is more selective than the male in her choice of habitat, consequently, the best areas attract more females than males. The last residents of a tract that is getting too old are always unmated males. Sometimes guys are slow to figure these things out.
Because of its specialized home range and unique habitat requirements, Kirtland's Warbler probably has always been a rare bird. Scientists did not describe the species until 1851 when a male was collected on the outskirts of Cleveland. The species, eventually, was named in honor of Dr. Jared P. Kirtland, a physician, teacher, horticulturist and naturalist who authored the first lists of birds, mammals, fishes, reptiles and amphibians of Ohio.
All of which brings us around to May 14 this year. Breeding male Kirtland's Warblers typically arrive back in Michigan from the Bahamas between May 3 and May 20. So, having one drop into our region at this time is something all of us birders wish for—but never believe will happen. Occasionally, we get lucky. And the odds are in our favor when you have some of the best eyes of the birding world on the lookout. We’re fortunate to have Kenn Kaufman, birding author and lecturer, living in our area. Kenn was checking the bushes that border Lake Erie at Magee Marsh on that morning when he found the bird.
Quickly, he was on the phone, and other lines of social networking communications, to tell the world that a Kirtland’s was in the neighborhood. It is also a happy coincidence that the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, headquartered at Magee Marsh, was sponsoring a major birding festival that had attracted thousands of birders, giving hundreds of people a look at this endangered species.

Bird's eyeview of the paparazzi

The bird proved to be more than just cooperative. It stayed in virtually the same bushes, eating bugs to fuel the rest of its trip to Michigan. It ignored the hundreds of photographers vying for the perfect shot, as well as the gawkers watching its every move. Like the best of stars, it kept about its business, knowing that in the morning it would be on its way, satiated and happy—just like all those photographers and bird watchers.

Kirtland's Warbler shows crowd his best side

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Easy Is, As Easy Does

Kentucky Warbler

Sometimes birding, and its corollary activities—bird identification and bird photography—are easy, sometimes not. We’ve spent the better part of the last couple weeks chasing migrating warblers around the state of Ohio—and it was great.
Last weekend we were in southern Ohio with a group of kindred souls from the Kirtland Bird Club. Our leader, Bruce Simpson, by day a naturalist with the metro parks system in Columbus; otherwise an intrepid birder if there ever was one, is a one-man field trip. Bruce’s excitement and enthusiasm are infectious, to say the least. Occasional drizzle, which eventually turned into torrential downpour, slowed Bruce and our group only slightly as we scoured the Zeleski State Forest and the Lake Hope areas of Vinton County.
We closed out the weekend with 18 warbler species, 80 species total and 55 gallons of water in the tent. It was great to be birding an area we’ve never seen, but often heard of.
This week we spent three and half days birding a spot we know well—the boardwalk at Magee Marsh in Ottawa County at the opposite end of the state. If you’re the least bit interested in migrating warblers, and other species, this is the spot to be this month. Hundreds, if not thousands of people were there—or are there. We counted license plates on cars from half the states in the country. By Friday we only paused to catch our breath, do some laundry, replenish our supplies—and dry out the tent, again. Our warbler count is now at 21 (out of a possible 36) with a couple weeks to go. Can we hit the elusive 30 species? Stay tuned.
We got real lucky at Magee Marsh and had great looks at the Kentucky Warbler, one of those skulkers that rarely sticks its head above the level of the weeds. People were packed four or five deep at one section of the boardwalk for a couple days, based on the rumor that the bird was there—someplace. And it was. The rumor was true. All it takes is patience.
Another bird that challenged some top-flight birders, and all the technology they could muster, was the tiny Least Flycatcher. This wisp of a bird was in plain view, giving us ample opportunity to determine its identity. The challenge was that it looks like too many other birds. I counted eight different field guides popping out of bags, an array of identity programs on iPods and years of knowledge before the bird simply looked as us and dryly said, “CHEbek.” The collective, satisfying laugh by a couple dozen birders, was like a response to some inside joke. People who’ve not struggled with the identity of birds in the Empidonax genus didn’t get it.

Least Flycatcher

And then there’s the easy picture you almost miss. Rain had started Friday morning. We were headed to the boardwalk anyway. Susan was driving. I was fussing with the camera gear contemplating taking it out in the drizzle—wrapped in a trash bag. With a near-whiplash stop, Susan said, “Look!” An acre of dandelions spread before us. At the far end of the field were two Canada Geese discussing the merits walking into the field.
Click, click, click! I love this sport.

Canada Geese in field of Fluff-headed Earth Nails