Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Fishing the Backcountry

The new aqueduct in the CVNP moves the Ohio & Erie Canal over Tinker's Creek, along with storm damage, have wiped out the usual gravel beds

Today started out as a normal day, or what passes for normal around here, until Susan asked, “Why aren’t you fishing?”
A perfectly logical question that might otherwise be ignored in January, except that today the thermometer was already gagging on 45 degrees and threatened to go completely whacky with a high of 58. Did I mention this is January?
Survival depends on being fast on your feet, so I immediately responded, “I am going fishing. I just want to finish reading last night’s saga of the Clown Circus masquerading as the Republican Primary. I need a good laugh to start my day.”
Less than 45 minutes later I was lining up my rod, confidently warning any steelhead trout swimming upstream in the Cuyahoga River, that he had something to fear this morning.
As I looked around, the first thing that did not feel right was an apparent lack of access to the stream. During the past year, beginning in 2010 actually, the good folks from the National Park Service have been repairing the aqueduct that transports the Ohio & Erie Canal over Tinker’s Creek, which empties into the Cuyahoga, and is the spot I like to fish here in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
They’ve done a fine job and it looks like the aqueduct should last 100 years. For me, however, it means walking about 50 yards in either direction to get to the stream. I thought of the quote, “You can never step twice into the same stream,” usually attributed to some Oriental philosopher, but really comes from Heraclitus of Ephesus, a sixth century BC Greek philosopher not known to be a trout fisherman.
In any case, he was right, the construction work on the aqueduct, along with our non-stop rain of last year, created a whole new waterway. It sort of looks the same, but access—from the road on in—is different. It’s much deeper now and I couldn’t step into it even if I wanted.
I managed to waste a couple of hours acting like I was fishing, then bagged the whole idea. Less than a mile down the road I spotted a deer trail leading back toward the river and thought maybe, just maybe … The more narrow the trail got the better I liked it. We’re talking about virgin territory here. I’d be sneaking up on the willy fish any minute now.

I like what these fishermen leave behind

Sure enough, the trail led to the river and I could see where the deer must cross. It was not a good place for fly fishing so I worked my way along the stream until I found an opening wide enough to allow me to cast. The only other tracks were those of a Great Blue Heron. The only other sign of life was some recent deconstruction work by beavers.
This had to be the spot. Or not.
By noon, none of the fish in the stream (assuming there were fish in the stream) had taken up the challenge of making fools of themselves. I walked a bit further down stream until I found the perfect log and ate my lunch. A Belted Kingfisher laughed at me as he flew up stream. I could see a small fish glistening in his bill and wondered if his mother ever told him not to talk with his mouth full.

Midnight snacks for a beaver

A Hairy Woodpecker impatiently tapped on a nearby tree like a rude card player drumming his fingers on the table, waiting for other players to get on with it so he could toss down his cards and scoop up his winnings.
After five hours of bushwhacking and fishing, what had I learned? Shoes made for wading in a stream make lousy hiking boots; maybe one cannot step twice into the same stream, but that’s okay; and one can always have a good day in the woods.
Which reminds me of another of Heraclitus’ lesser known quotes: “Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.”

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Soaring Above It All

120 feet straight up--you can't beat the view

Rain stopped the afternoon of the day before, yet, we were admonished to arm for Tuesday morning with our usual kit: SPF, bug dope, snake boots, rain gear, cameras, binoculars and lightweight clothes. Thus, prepared for anything, we set out at 0-dark-30 for the Canopy Tower.
Canopy towers have become de rigor in many places catering to birders throughout South America. The primary reason being that many species of birds and other animals rarely come down to ground level. If you want to see them you have to ascend to their level.
In the case of Napo Wildlife Center—a place so deep in the Amazon basin that it’s a two-hour canoe transport from the nearest motorized boats—the canopy tower is about 120 high. Climbing what equals a 12-story building could be fraught with hazards, or so some of our participants imagined. Little did we realize the day’s dangers would be found at ground level.

Safe in the arms of a 400-year-old Kapok tree

Fishing bats and Long-nosed bats flapped past at ear level, accompanying us along a tannin-stained stream that lead deeper into the jungle. The stream narrowed and the water thinned until we reached a point where the canoe bottomed out. Wisely, the guide said we have to hike in from there, about 800 meters, to the base of the tower.

Spix's Guan seen from above

When you approach a canopy tower, it’s best not to look up. When you make it to the platform above, it’s best not to look down. As I stood on the platform, 120 feet above the ground, a gentle breeze rustling my hair, I thought about how this Kapok tree was getting its start about the same time as America—when Jamestown was being settled as the first permanent address in Virginia. It was easy to imagine that no matter which direction I looked, white men had probably never walked.
We spent about three hours watching a variety of birds and monkeys move among the tree tops. The occasional breeze was welcome as it blew away the pesky stingless bees. Then it was time to descend.

This Cinnamon-throated Woodcreeper seemed as interested in us as we were of him

On our return to the canoe, our guide, a member of the indigenous Kitchwa community and known throughout the area as the Bird Whisperer, sensed (I can’t find a better word for his uncanny ability to locate birds) a rare Grey-winged Trumpeter. This velvety-black and white bird the size of a really large chicken or a small turkey sports a greenish bill and has a penchant for bugs kicked up by wild pigs—Piccaries. Heedless of danger, and thinking we were of like mind, Jorge plunged into the jungle.
We had little choice but to follow. The irony of a pack of bird watchers fearlessly bushwhacking through the Amazon jungle, chasing wild pigs, really didn’t set in until later that day—when we stopped shaking. No way could we keep up with the guide. Suddenly we realized we were all standing still, listening to far-off thrashing and grunting sounds, some of which were probably generated by the guide.
About the time I was going to ask my colleagues what we’d do if the pigs ate the guide, he popped up, grinning like he was having the time of his life. It seems the herd of pigs went further into the jungle and the chase was over. He easily walked us out to the trail, leaving us with a tale to tell. Just another day in the jungle.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

More on Ecuador

A name like Purple-bibbed Whitetip says it all

Thanks to all the readers who sent notes and made comments about the colorful bird pix in my latest blog. It’s true, the birds of Ecuador are fabulous. It’s also true that many of the more than 400 species we saw were rather nondescript. Here are some more birds and observations from birding two weeks within a few kilometers of the middle of the Earth.

Tawny Antpitta

Rufous Antpitta

In our experience, we saw every shade of brown known to the art world. Most of these species had the word rufous in their name to describe the head, wing, breast, tail or some other body part. As one of our non-birder participants said as we labored over our daily sightings, “Why are you bird people so fascinated with bird rumps?”

Just another day in the cloud forest

It’s hard to describe some birds as pretty. Birds such as the One-colored Becard, Drab Water Tyrant, or Dull-colored Grassquit are not as beautiful as their names might imply. If you’re a “lister,” however, they all count as another checkmark on the scorecard.

At this reserve, to prevent bird-window strikes, the folks tied rocks to ribbons. So, the bird flys toward the window, hits the ribbon and the rock goes ...

Sunday, January 22, 2012

So Many Birds—So Little Time

Bizarre, yet beautiful: Hoatzin

Birding Ecuador is like drinking from a fire hose. With more than 1,600 bird species in an area smaller than the State of Nevada, and dozens of habitats (compared with half that number of birds in all of the United States and its half dozen or so habitats), a taste is all you’re going to get. But it’s a taste that makes you want to go back for more.
Susan and I just returned from two weeks of Ecuadorean birding, along with friends we met on our Cuban adventure two years ago, and some new friends. We split our time between a week high on the northwest slopes of the Andes, trekking to as high as 11,500 to see the Sword-billed Hummingbird, then a week in the Amazon jungle; two more diverse habitats would be hard to find.
Since a photo is worth a thousand words (or whatever), here’s 10,000 or so.

The Sword-billed Hummingbird, with its 4-inch bill, is unmistakable, even in the rain

Blue-winged Mountain Tanager

Booted Racket-tail

Capped Heron

There's a reason they call it the Cloud Forest--10,000 feet up and panting

Red-capped Cardinal

Snail Kite

Velvet-purple Coronet

Violet-tailed Sylph

Thursday, January 05, 2012

No Free Lunch

Cooper's Hawk+Northern Cardinal=lunch

At the lunch table this afternoon I was joined by Mr. Cooper. He’s becoming a regular tablemate these days. I was enjoying a hearty bowl of soup, while he opted to bring carry-out—in this case a Northern Cardinal. We chose not to share tastes as some of my luncheon regulars do.
I find it interesting, people who enjoy watching film of Bald Eagles plunging to catch a fish, or Cheetahs whacking a Springbok, get all squeamish when looking at or talking about birds eating birds, especially at the bird feeder. Hey, why do you think it’s called a feeding station?
Anyway, while Mr. C and I were enjoying our meals of choice, one of our not-so-bright squirrels decided he wanted to get in on Mr. Cooper’s catch. We both watched as this guy slowly climbed the tree—as if no one could see him. Mr. Cooper paid less attention than I and continued to work on the packaging surrounding his lunch.

At least his packaging is biodegradable

When the squirrel got within about three feet of the hawk, tails flared. The hawk flared his wings as well and said something in animalese that gave the squirrel pause. I used my magic decoder wristwatch to interpret what he said. Here it is, verbatim: “If you want a free lunch, become a politician.”

This story ends with Mr. C flying off to a nearby fir tree, me catching my breath, and the squirrel checking MapQuest to see how long it will take to get to New Hampshire.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Why Little Birds Have Heart Attacks

Cooper's Hawk, up close and personal

The familiar and unwanted thud of a bird hitting our picture window caused me to glance up. When this happens I usually walk over to the window, look at the ground and try to guess the specimen we’ll next be donating to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
Before I got out of my chair, however, I saw the cause of the window strike. A Cooper’s Hawk had scattered the feeder birds, one of which hit the window and dropped into the hedges, thinking it was flying to a safe haven. The hawk opted to land on a nearby branch and contemplate the vagaries of life, I suppose. He seemed in no hurry to leave in search of lunch elsewhere.

I watched as he watched, trying to see what he saw. I detected movement in the hedges about the same time he did. He launched from his perch directly at me. Granted, I outweigh this guy by about 168 pounds and more than four feet in height, plus I was well ensconced behind a couple layers of glass, yet I still jumped.
He landed atop the feeder array, and stared straight at me. Thinking what? I wondered what might a Dark-eyed Junco or House Sparrow feel as those talons and beak approach at lightning speed.
Welcome to the natural world.

And your problem is?

Learned Behavior

Tufted Titmouse on the job

Nothing like a bit of snow to bring the birds flocking to the feeders here in northeast Ohio. The Lake Erie Snow Machine is giving us a show of what winter is supposed to be, not what’s it’s been.
This morning, as I glanced in the direction of the feeders between other tasks, I kept thinking I needed to refill one or two of them to see if we could attract a Red-breasted Nuthatch or maybe some Pine Siskins. I was reluctant, however, to go out in the horizontal snow storm to do so. They’d get by without my help. In fact, I’ve read various reports on how much birds depend on us humans for food in winter months and the number seems to be someplace between 10 percent and 20 percent.

White-breasted Nuthatch gets by with a little help from his friends

Then came the not-so-gentle tap on the window.
We have a Tufted Titmouse that visits regularly. He (or she) has taken it upon himself to be the conscience of the neighborhood, making sure the feeders are full and the water right up to the edge of the bird bath.
His way of signaling the need for replenishment is to sit on the windowsill edge at the top of our picture window and tap on the glass, not always lightly, until he gets our attention. This 6.5-inch, 0.75-ounce ball of fluff can hammer loud enough to call me up from the family room in the basement. He goes through a series of gyrations until I get the message.
Lesson learned.

Hang on guys, he's putting on his coat