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?