Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Stay Tuned. It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

Canada Geese

Way back in the last century when I came out of the closet and declared myself a real birder (this was shortly after dinosaurs left the planet) there was a Holy Grail, of sorts, that separated real birders from “bird watchers.” It was a number—600. It represented the number of species one saw in a lifetime in North America as defined by the American Birding Association (ABA,
This arbitrary number was created when there were about 800 species on the list of birds possible to see in the designated territory. Like birds, that number is a moving target. Now there are something like 969 birds recorded in North America, including Alaska, and the Holy Grail is whatever you want to make it.
As I approach my allotted three-score-and-ten, Susan asked how I might celebrate the big occasion. I said I’d rather ignore the whole thing. Our conversation switched (or maybe got back to) birding and the fact that I was stuck at 595 on my life list. The Holy Grail was within reach if only I was willing to stretch a bit. Stretching at my age has its hazards; it leads to obsession. I began to think, however, maybe, just maybe …
Odds were against me. This is a tough time of the year to chase birds. On the other hand, it’s a great time of the year because rarities pop-up in the strangest places.
Bird #596 turned out to be a Little Gull we located in Niagara Falls, Canada, still part of North America by most definitions, on a whirlwind trip with birding buddies Pat and Karin.
Bird #597 was a Hoary Redpoll, thanks to local birding dynamo Jen Brumfield ( Jen is a local artist and bird guide, with energy levels that rival the Energizer Bunny. Thanks to cell phone technology, she reported a rare Hoary Redpoll among a flock of Common Redpolls and within minutes, Susan and I were in the car and looking at the bird.
My hands were getting sweaty. I was trying to hit a lifetime 600 with no trip to Alaska, nor a pelagic trip—that’s a trip on the ocean. I have a lot of holes in my life list that could easily be filled by doing either. And if I did, I’d have serious holes in my pockets.

Goose. Goose. Duck!

Now, within three birds of the Holy Grail (as defined by me), I leaned on another young local area birder, sharp-eyed Ethan Kistler, education and outreach specialist, Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO, He also posts a regular update of rare birds seen in Ohio. One of the relatively easy birds that has alluded me over the years has been the Cackling Goose. Ethan promised to keep me posted on any reports that crossed his desk.
Then, the planets aligned. Cackling Goose was reported near by. Better yet, a rare Pink-footed Goose had been hanging with the Canada guys over in Maryland; easy pickings. More better yet, an even more-rare Black-headed Gull was reported near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I dug out the maps, did the math and got approval from management.
Time for a road trip!
I’ve been running off the leash this week with Susan away on grandma duty. Everything pointed toward success. Only one major stumbling block I refused to recognize—birds have wings.
A day of birding the local patch, Sunday, and I came up empty handed on the Cackling Goose. Not to worry. Go for the tough ones, said the voices in my head.
A day’s drive east got me to where the Black-headed Gull should have been on the Susquehanna River. I watched an uncountable number of Ring-billed Gulls, along with a couple local birders. We swapped lies until dark, then called it a day.
The next day, close to Baltimore, I searched pond after pond in the toney suburb of Lisbon, Howard County. It’s one of those places with street names like, “Brittle-branch Way.” You get it. Lots of ponds, mostly on inaccessible private property where the people will call the cops if they see you looking at their starter castles with a spotting scope.
I met up with another birder also following the rare-bird reports. We combed through hundreds of Canada Geese, taking breaks by looking at daffodils and admiring the colors of the crocus in bloom. Carolina Wrens were singing, a Swainson’s Thrush made a cameo appearance and an Eastern Meadowlark helped brighten the morning.
Three and a half hours of looking at Canada Geese is about all I can take. It was a fun trip. I still have 46 days to finish my income taxes or find three new life birds—whichever comes first.

Hope is the thing with feathers … Emily Dickinson

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Will Luna Swallow Jupiter?

Jupiter approaches Luna

In case you’ve been spending time looking at the stars on the eye-that-never-blinks inside your home, the real stars (okay, planets actually) are currently putting on an incredible show in the southwestern sky.
February 23 may have been the better of the past few nights, however, the show will continue until mid March. So, any night that’s clear, get out there and see Venus, Jupiter and Luna, all coming to a sky near you. No red carpet, but no commercial interruptions, either.

These are the brightest objects in the sky and you won’t need a telescope or even binoculars to witness the conjunction they’re creating. Look for the crescent moon just before sunset. It’s in the southwest part of the sky. As the sky darkens, you’ll see two bright objects aligning with or near the moon. The brighter of the two is Venus, the other is Jupiter. On February 26 when I made these pictures it looked like Jupiter might fall into the open mouth of the moon. Okay, it takes a bit of imagination, but that’s what astronomy is for, asking the big “what if” questions. Astronomy is a three dimensional art, however, you're only allowed to use two dimensions when trying to figure out who is doing what to whom
Although the moon will move out of the scene as the days progress, the orbits of Venus and Jupiter will make them appear as close as a binary star by mid March—the real thing if you want to see what March Madness is all about.

Left of the moon is Jupiter and below to the right is Venus

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Ghost From the Past

Barn Owl

As is often said when birding, expect the unexpected. Such was our luck Saturday at Killdeer Plains in west central Ohio.
Killdeer Plains Wildlife Management Area is one of those rare spots where you can bird a full winter’s day and always, well, almost always, come away with a great list of birds. Susan and I make an annual trek to this location a couple hours from home with our birding buddies, Karin and Pat. They missed last year’s outing because they were on hiatus in Africa, so this year we were looking forward to renewing our tradition.
The question of the day—the season, I should say—was, “Where’s the winter?” With birding, there are numerous reasons species do or don’t show up on schedules we humans like to attach to them. For example, this year there has been a limited number of Snow Buntings, a species we’ve seen in abundance when snow covered the landscape and temperatures were at polar bear levels. We saw none this year.
Owls, a big attraction at Killdeer, have infrequently been reported on the Ohio Ornithological Society list serve this season. In years past we’ve recorded no fewer than five species, four in one day! This year we saw only one species—the most sought after in the owl family—the Barn Owl!
An endangered species here in Ohio, the Barn Owl’s status has improved, marginally, the past few years. This improvement is due in no small part to efforts by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources installing nesting boxes throughout the state. While the Barn Owl has a worldwide distribution (eight species of the genus Tyto, worldwide), true to its name, it prefers barns as nest sites. With the obvious changes in agriculture, those preferred nest locations are hard to find.
The bird has also be called a “ghost” bird, a reference to its light coloring, use of abandoned (read haunted) buildings, monkey-like face and eerie, screechy call. Seeing one of these secretive birds away from its nest site, and unless you’re directed to that nest site, is a rare and special treat.
So it was, Saturday, as we walked through the traditional owl grove at Killdeer Plains, seeing virtually nothing. Then Susan casually looked up and studied a dark shape high in a pine tree. I still marvel at her calm demeanor when she said, “I think I have an owl, here.” Then she said, “Oh! It’s a Barn Owl!”
Swaying in the breeze, seemingly as curious about us, was a Barn Owl. We knew exactly what it was, yet kept asking and confirming with each other that it was, in fact, a Barn Owl.
Most of the Barn Owls in the state are migrants, spending winters in the South. We suspect, with the mild winter we’ve had, this bird probably returned earlier than its usual nesting period, late March into April. Whatever the reason, we enjoyed our brief visit with this ghost who did not frighten us in the least.

Killdeer Plains never disapoints

Thursday, February 09, 2012

God’s Dog

Winter is making another threat here in northeast Ohio, so I figured I best get some backcountry hiking in, just in case it’s serious about snowfall tomorrow. I opted for the Plateau Trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park—five good miles to shake loose the too-much-inside doldrums.
At first it was just a feeling—not uncommon when hiking the backcountry alone—that I was being watched. I had seen no one except a couple of White-breasted Nuthatches in a couple hours, yet I had the feeling I was being watched—make that stalked. I thought I heard leaves crunch and glanced over my shoulder several times but saw nothing.
Then feeling turned into reality. I froze. He froze, 100 feet away. Nothing but bright sunshine, clear air, a few sapling trees and braches between me and a wild beast. He had somehow maneuvered in front of me.
The hair on the back of my neck was sending a signal to the rest of my body. My mouth was dry, but I feared licking my lips. I’ve read that any movement might be construed as aggression. I figured sticking out one’s tongue was not a good idea. I’ve read not to stare into the wild beast’s eyes, yet I could not take my eyes from his; the deep amber color of the wet leaves. I’ve read that you’re not suppose to run, but I think that’s so the beast does not tire himself before he eats you. And I’ve read that wild animals can smell fear. I don’t think it’s fear they smell. I think it’s what was about to start running down my leg …
Then he blinked!
Something to his left caught his attention. He lifted his muzzle skyward and closed his eyes. I dropped to my knees in the mud and ice of the trail. In a frenzy to get into my pack, my trekking poles clattered as I struggled to dig out my camera.

I looked up, fully expecting him to be long gone. He was watching me, his head tilted to the right giving the appearance of curiosity. Another staring contest. This time I must have looked like an alien to him, somehow smaller, a single blinking eye with black surrounding it where seconds ago there had been a taller animal, red pelt, two long legs and two short legs, two eyes, gray beard. (Okay, coyotes are color blind. I’m just saying …)
Now he seemed more puzzled than hungry. Whatever was happening to his left made him look again in that direction, then turn. He peed on the ground, scratched a bit to mark the spot, then started to move away. Suddenly he stopped and looked directly at me.
On some primal level I got his message.

He moved through the underbrush, then magically appeared, standing on a fallen tree. He gave me one more look to be sure I understood. I assured him everything was cool, thanked him for his time and sat down in the mud to catch my breath. He disappeared.
So, why is Coyote called God’s dog? We have the native American Navajo people to thank. To them, he was a culture hero, trickster; a shape-shifter described as a buffoon, clown, or less frequently, a dangerous sorcerer and cannibal.
Coyote's adaptability, ingenuity, and intelligence are renowned and celebrated, not just among modern biologists who have identified 19 separate species of coyote, but throughout prehistory. His ability to endure is unparalleled. Yet this alone didn't make Coyote sacred. His engaging personality, comic playfulness, exuberant celebration, boundless joy, and extraordinary cunning mark him as something from the spirit world.
Called God's Dog by the Navaho who see him as originator of death and bringer of dreams, Coyote is both trickster and wise counselor.
On some primal level I get it. You don’t go eye-to-eye with God’s Dog and not understand.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Full Snow Moon

Recently, I was reading a poem by Alfred Noyse (1880-1958), "The Highwayman," later put to music by Phil Ochs (1940-1976); two seemingly disparate characters who found common ground in a single entity—the moon.
Fate conspired to make me think of Ochs this morning. Recently, PBS ran a brief special on Ochs’ brief and special life. The moon was less than a day from full at 5:30 a.m. I headed west, watching it set. Noyse’s words played with my mind as I looked at Luna’s cold stare: “The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees; The moon a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.”
Englishman Noyse was born to academic parents but failed to get his college degree because on the day of his finals, he was arranging publication of his first volume of poems. He went on to publish numerous volumes of his work and came to America in 1913 to lecture on world peace and disarmament. His skills as a lecturer landed him a job at Princeton for nine years. He went on to write a large body of work, much of it based on his interest in science, including astronomy.
Phil Ochs was a child of the 60s, sometimes described as a “Bob Dylan with a good voice.” His protest songs, often laced with sarcasm, turned the spotlight on injustices in America and throughout the world. Michael Ventura writes that Ochs’ songs contained the energy that instigated change.
The moon, particularly a full moon, has its way of forcing heavy thinking on people. We’ve lost our ability to live our lives by the phases of the moon; we chuckle at names given to full moons by native Americans—this month’s is the Full Snow Moon; yet we always look at our nearest neighbor in wonder; and wonder.

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the Highwayman came riding …

Sunday, February 05, 2012

The Bird Bus

Cedar Waxwing

The Bird Bus arrived this morning around 8 a.m. Its arrival was muffled by the fog settling in, thankfully hiding all of the human-made activity in the neighborhood. For about 45 minutes only a couple panes of glass separated us and the birds.

American Robin

The bus had a diverse load of passengers today. Some stopped by for just a drink of water. Starlings discussed their good luck in finding a fresh suet cake meant for woodpeckers.

European Starlings

Others were there to stare through the glass to see what it is humans eat in the mornings. Cedar Waxwings bought a ticket to the feast offered by the crabapple tree, or to glean the Bradford Pear.
Then, as quietly and quickly as they arrived, they were gone.

House Finch