Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Spring’s True Harbinger

Northern Cardinal, leader of the spring chorus, and fanciest dresser

I was out walking early this morning, well, relatively early, about 8 a.m., when I noticed one of those spring harbingers. It was not one many people talk about. Forget about that first-robin-of spring myth. American Robins can be found year round in northeast Ohio.
No, for birders, I think the first indication, the promise that we will not freeze to death or run out of food before winter’s end, is the dawn chorus; that glorious sound of birds competing to see who has the loudest, best song among their own kind and among all the other singers. The chorus lasts not long enough.

American Goldfinch preparing his spring outfit

It can bring about one of those whacky challenges when you’re camping, before the sun has made it’s decision to brighten the day, birds start singing and you and your tent mate try to name as many species as possible. Sometimes it’s that incessant cardinal perched on the railing outside your bedroom window at 4 a.m., unsure if he’s getting home late or getting up early, who wants to be sure everyone else in the world is there to celebrate the crack of dawn with him.
Hey, we’re retired. We know how to find fun, wherever.
This morning I stopped in my tracks, single-digit temperatures aside, to listen to the dawn chorus, an unfamiliar sound from familiar birds. It was all the usual suspects, cardinals, chickadees, robins and titmice. The song they sang, “It Won’t Be Long Now,” is one of my most favorites.

Carolina Wren, a welcome, unfamiliar voice in the dawn chorus

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Snow by Any Definition

Western Snowy Plover

Snowy does not always mean what you think. California, a land of contrasts if there ever was one, plays host to two highly endangered birds: the huge California Condor and the tiny Western Snowy Plover.
With a name like Snowy, you’d suspect the bird had some connection to lands farther north than California, especially the beaches of California. Not so. Linnaeus named this small bird (Charadrius alexandrinus) in 1758 (Syst. Nat. 10(1):150) for its presence in Alexandria, Egypt. It’s found, in small numbers, worldwide. I suppose it got the snowy part of its name from its ghost-like color.
The Pacific Coast population of the Western Snowy Plover is federally listed under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 as threatened. The Western Snowy Plover is a Bird Species of Special Concern in California. Snowy plovers were listed as endangered under Washington’s (state) Department of Game Policy, and as threatened by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission. A lot of folks are concerned about this tiny bird, only the size of a fat sparrow.
Plovers will use almost anything they can find on the beach to make their nests, including kelp, driftwood, shells, rocks, and even human footprints.

Footprints make a great spot to rest

Although it was not nesting season while Susan and I were recently in California, we visited a protected area near Isla Vista where we had found the bird in the past. Sure enough, a few birds were hanging out, eating bugs, doing all those plover things, paying little attention to us humans.
Unfortunately, that could be the birds’ downfall. It tolerates us, and other creatures, to the point of its own demise. It nests in piles of dead kelp, even human footprints. It’s easy pickins for dogs, and many other introduced predators. When disturbed enough they will run away, leaving the nest and eggs vulnerable.
I sat and watched the birds for a while to see what they do, since surfing, texting and television do not seem to be part of their game plan. It seems what the do best, or most, is watch. They watched me watching them. They watch the tides and the foaming waves. They seem to like to stand and feel the wind and its direction, then turn accordingly so their feathers can ruffle. They watch each other for companionship and to initiate a chase for no reason I could determine. They particularly watch human activity. They watch people walk past. They watch dogs on leash and off leash, it doesn't make a bit of difference to them.
The longer I watched the more I realized I was getting a life lesson here and I better pay attention.

Feeling the wind, checking the footprints, another busy day for a Western Snowy Plover

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Looking Forward to the Past

The La Huerta Project at the Mission of Santa Barbara, California

While Susan and I were in California recently, recharging our solar-powered batteries, we paid a visit to an interesting gardening project she read about. It’s called the La Huetra Project at the mission in Santa Barbara.

Upon arrival at the mission, our first challenge was finding a way into the garden area. Had it been left to me we’d still be wandering around the parking lot looking for the gate. Susan wisely asked directions of the first person she saw. Turns out she asked the right guy. It just happened to be Jerry Sortomme, professor emeritus of the Santa Barbara City College Environmental Horticulture program. He’s been the spearhead of this project to locate and propagate plants for a new mission garden since 2003. The original idea-seeds for this project were sewn in 1999.

We could not have asked for a better, more genial host or more-informed guide. Jerry not only gave us a history lesson in gardening, I think during the more than two hours we spent with him, he brought us up speed on everything that’s happened along the California coast since 1769.

The heart and soul—you might say the mission—of the mission project is to recreate the huerta, or garden, (some Spanish translations of this word say it is like a door or entrance way) where friars cultivated food and other usable crops required for their daily life in the early 1800s. Jerry said the garden has, and will have, no plants that arrived in California after 1834, about the time when the Mexican government, which achieved independence in 1822, took a hard look at what was known as Alta California and decided to secularize the missions.

Jerry and his team of volunteers do a lot of spade work even before the digging starts outside. They research long lists of plants grown during the mission era, delving into the writings of church officials as well as early visitors and residents. The array of non-native and native plants grown on mission property is long and interesting. Some records go back as early as 1769. Of special interest to Jerry are heritage plants. These are species that represent living material, obtained from unaltered plants documented to be from a particular place and time. He uses modern DNA testing to verify cuttings, like that of a 100-year-old grapevine to assure that it is the authentic ‘Mission’ grape.

Through the dedicated efforts of volunteers, this project will keep alive a part of history rapidly being lost not only in California, but all over the planet as we—for better or worse—alter the structure of plants. So, if you’re in the area of Santa Barbara and you want to see what life, garden life, was like before 1834, stop in at the mission’s La Huerta garden. And, if you can’t suppress the urge to get your hands dirty, pull a few weeds, or dead-head flowers, visit on a Wednesday morning. Jerry can always use another volunteer.

Jerry Sortamme, who has headed the La Huerta Project for nearly a decade, answered all Susan's questions--and more

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Feeding in February

Downy Woodpeckers on a lunch date

This morning I was reminded that February is Bird Feeder Month for those of us in the birding world. It’s time to pay a bit more attention to our feathered friends, I suppose because we’re often snowed in and can’t do anything else but sit at the window and dream of sunny days to come.
Around our place we long ago realized that by adding a water element, i.e. a bird bath, to our array of feeders, we attract more than our share of birds and other critters. Along with birds we get most of the squirrels in northern Summit County, as well as, per tracks in the snow, the occasional White-tailed deer.
It’s the birds, however, that provide the most entertainment. Often American Robins, four or five at a time, line the edge of the bird bath (heated in this weather, of course) and drink in unison, picking up beaks full of water, then tipping their heads back like a chorus of gospel singers to drink. Fascinating are the Mourning Doves, one of the few species of birds that can swallow, thus dipping their heads in to their eyeballs to suck up their drinks.
Most impressive is the politeness of it all. It’s not uncommon to see a half dozen species of birds sitting in the branches waiting their turns at the water. I think our politicians could learn a lesson in deportment here: Wait your turn at the public trough, there’s plenty for everyone.
This Winter we’ve had our quota of the usual feeder suspects, plus the occasional Pine Siskin along with a single Common Redpoll who put in a cameo appearance a few weeks ago.
So, if you’re thinking about feeding birds during these harsh winter months (you can do it year round and enjoy the antics youngsters in the Spring), consider adding a heated bird bath. It will increase your enjoyment and add, measurably, to the birds’ ability to survive.

American Robins with an invited European Starling guest

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Two Questions, Maybe Three

Red-tailed Hawk

I’ve been fortunate to bird in California for the past 10 days or so, long enough to get that California-mellow feeling about most things in life. So, this morning, birding a spot I had not visited for several years because of fire damage, I was Mr. Mellow, more or less ready for anything. I was hit with a couple questions, questions I seem to hear wherever I bird, questions I was able to answer in a laid-back manner, not the usual smart-ass replies I prefer to give. When it was all over, I thought about the questions and tried to find some common denominator.
Question one, from two women walking what I suppose were dogs.
Them: (All eyes, smiles and excitement.) Seen any good birds, yet?
Me: (Thinking all birds are good. And what’s a good, or bad, bird? And ‘yet’ implies that I will.) Oh yeah, but then, I’m from Cleveland so …
Them: (Mumbling something about Cleveland.) Great weather. What didja see?
Me: (Always ready to educate.) Well, there’s a nice Spotted Towhee just ahead of you, and Lesser Goldfinches seem to be everywhere.
Them: (Already disengaged.) Well, have a nice day!
Me: (Somewhat baffled.) Ah, thanks.
The second question of the morning was one our birding buddy, Pat Coy, absolutely loves, looks forward to, stays up at night in anticipation of.
Man walking his dog: (Making a statement, not asking a question.) So, you’re a bird watcher?
Me: (Being mellow.) Yup.
Him: (Authoritatively.) So, ya seen any eagles, yet.
Me: (Trying my damndest to repress a laugh.) Well, no. Don’t really expect to. It’d be nice, of course, but …
Him: (Not letting me finish.) Hell’s bells, they’re all over the place. Look right over there.
Me: (Always ready to educate.) Ah, that’s a Red-tailed Hawk.
Him: (Turning to leave in a huff.) Bullshit.
Me: (Being mellow.) Ah, have a nice day.
The third question was similar to the first two, really more of a statement than a question. Three well-dressed (for walking) ladies with one white dog smaller than most cats I’ve seen.
Lady with the bluest hair: (Eyes on all my cameras, binoculars, etc.) Are you looking for birds?
Me: (Asking the higher powers not to say, ‘No, fish, actually.) Yup.
Lady #2: (Trying not to have her kneecaps sliced by the frigging dog that kept yapping and running around.) Do you need all that stuff?
Me: (Suddenly feeling the various straps cut into my flesh.) Well, I take a lot of pictures and …
Lady #1: (Trying to skip rope with the dog leash.) Why don’t you just look them up in the internets? That’s easier. Besides, where are they?
Me: (Blinded by this flash of the obvious.) Ah, well, ah, all you have to do is look up …
The trio: (Satisfied they had given me necessary advice to succeed in life.) You just have a nice day, young man.
I had to sit on the nearest log, totally exhausted, and think about this last hour of conversations. These people were all out walking in a county park, so how could they be so oblivious to their surroundings?
That was when I remembered something a botanist told us yesterday, “There are a lot of people suffering from NDD around here.”
I had to ask what NDD was, and prepared to stop at the local pharmacy to get some protection.
“It’s Nature Deficit Disorder,” he said.

Lesser Goldfinch