Wednesday, May 22, 2013

If Ornithology Doesn’t Work For You ...

FDR's bird collection tucked into a corner was tougher to find than a Kirtland's Warbler.

You never know what act of fate starts a child down a career path. Sunday we learned a fascinating ornithological fact about our 32nd president. Susan and I made a stop at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s home at Hyde Park, New York, on our way to the east coast. It was another of the National Park properties we often said, “Someday we gotta stop and see ...” Today was the day.
The tour of FDR’s home is something not to be missed. Amidst the collection of FDR’s sailboat prints and other navy memorabilia, tucked back in a corner that none of the other people on the tour noticed, was a cupboard filled with bird specimens.
We identified about 50 species in the cupboard, then asked the tour guide about the birds.
The park ranger told us, when FDR was about eight years old he began to collect and taxidermy birds. He emulated many of the things his cousin, Teddy Roosevelt, 26 years his senior, did. FDR was an avid collector, obtaining most of his species on home property, Springwood, at Hyde Park. FDR’s interest in ornithology continued until the boy was about 12 years old. A series of illnesses led doctors to the knowledge that the arsenic used to preserve bird skins back in the day, was the cause of FDR’s health problems.
The house at Springwood holds about one-fifth of FDR’s prepared 
specimens, the remainders of the collection are in the Natural History Museum in New York City.
And since the ornithology thing wasn’t working out for him, FDR had to choose another career path and the rest, as they say, is history.
(Full disclosure: Thanks to Susan for the loan of the camera, computer, jump drive and patience required to produce this blog. No animals were harmed in its production.)

As up close as we were allowed to view. No flash, please!

Friday, May 03, 2013

The Golden Daze of Spring Migration

 Flock of American Golden-plovers in various stages of molt.

Although it threatens my status as a curmudgeon, I too-often say there are no bad days for birding; some are just better than others. And then there are the days that are pure gold.
Spring migration seems to be off to a slow-to-moderate pace here in northeast Ohio, compared with some years that feel like spring has passed before you can get your binoculars up to your eyes. This year Susan and I, joined by birding buddy Karin, opted for an early start, hoping to catch the first waves of warblers and others as they passed through Magee Marsh on their way to the Arctic tundra.

Blackburnian Warblers have that strange way of looking at you that makes you think ...

After several slow days, the pace of species and numbers of birds picked up. In the distant future, May 1 will be one of those days we’ll swap lies about with other birders when they start in with, “Ya shoulda been here when …” It was a golden day.
It was the kind of day that keeps birders coming back, year after year, just like the birds. Of the many highlights, I think top-of-the-list award goes to the relatively cooperative Golden-winged Warbler, first spotted by Karin and Susan. This species is such a rare find (for us at least) that we all figured it has been maybe 15 years since we last saw one. True to form, I had put the camera away for the day and we were going to bird a small patch of trees just to top off the day. Top off the day we did. I even surprised myself at how quickly I could get back to the car and get a few shots of the tree-top visitor.

Golden-winged Warbler

Earlier in the day we had tracked down an elusive flock of American Golden-plovers. This species is not unknown in this area, however, several birds in this bunch had molted into breeding plumage, a form we rarely get to see. In the late afternoon sun there was no doubt about identification.
Even earlier, as the sun was first making an appearance, when birds tend to feed on insects near the ground, we had perfect looks at another bird that sports a lot of gold—the Palm Warbler.

Palm Warbler

Right. Some days are just better than others. We had a week of those days and it ain’t over, yet.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Ghost of a Chance

I was unsure if the thundering noise was our house being hit by a meteorite or if the diamond had dropped out of Susan's engagement ring. Whichever, it surely meant disaster.
I dashed upstairs and came face-to-face with a ghost bird.
Well, it was the image of a ghost at least. The near-perfect silhouette of a Mourning Dove was etched onto our picture window.

Another window strike. This is a too-common way for birds to meet their end. It's estimated that millions of birds die each year when they smash into windows. Exact numbers are impossible to tabulate.
At our feeding station, the common precipitate for window strikes is the resident Cooper's Hawk, or his associate, a Red-shouldered Hawk that's also been working the area with frequency. I can't blame the hawks, they have to eat, too. When one of the raptors flies in, or over, it's mayhem at the feeders; birds take off in all directions, and our large picture window reflects an escape route into the forest.
What to do?
Birding buddies Pat and Karin found a solution to the window-strike problem at their home. Over the years they tried several devices that were not acceptable, i.e. screening devices that cut the viewing of birds to an unacceptable level.
Pat discovered the Acopian Bird Savers, a clever array consisting of single dark-colored nylon cords hung vertically a few inches in front of the outside window glass. These nylon cords are spaced about four inches apart across the horizontal width of the window.
The idea is, birds used to flying through the woods can avoid branches. The presumption is, they recognize these dark nylon cords as dark branches. The Acopian Center for Ornithology at Muhlenberg College and Dr. Daniel Klem, Jr. developed and refined this tactic using field tests in a wooded opening in a Pennsylvania forest. It's good science. The result was the nylon-corded windows reduced window strikes by upwards of 90 percent compared with unprotected windows.
If you’d like to save the lives of more than a few birds, here are a couple links to explore:
Now, to get that ghostly image off the window, I’ll need the stepladder, the glass cleaner, the … Or, I could just call GhostBusters!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Earth Day 2013

 A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher with attitude.

Even though the barrage of news related to the terrorist bombing in Boston and subsequent capture of the (alleged) bad guys is ringing in my head, it can’t drown the rallying cries of Earth Day 1970. For a number reasons, that late-1960s—early 1970s time period remains a bit foggy to me. I recall going to an Environmental Teach-in in Washington, D.C. in 1969 (I think), which I’ve always thought of as the first Earth Day. History seems to say otherwise. Damn revisionists.

One of many Hermit Thrushes passing through on its way north.

I do recall how intense we were, determined to change the world with our weapons of choice; signs, songs and marches. Our cause was just, visible and understandable. If people wanted to know who the enemy was, all they had to do was look for our long hair, beards or uniforms of jeans and tie-dye T-shirts. And guess what? We actually won a few battles! Now, 43 years later, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson’s dream of environmental awareness lives. I doubt anyone will say that for the acts of cowardly terrorists who chose to kill and maim innocent people.

Northern Flicker takes a break in Ohio on her way north.

This year I chose to honor Earth Day with my environmentalist-peacenik-birding-buddies Pat and Karin (a couple of Northeast Ohio’s top-tier, mid-level birders), in a search for early migrant warblers along the north coast of America—Lake Erie, Mentor Headlands State Park in particular. Cobalt sky, temperature about 33 degrees, winds mostly from the east: Who could ask for more? We could, actually. Seventy degrees and wind from the south would have be a bit more comfortable, however, as a birder, you take what you get, when you can get it.
We didn’t set any records for numbers of species (about 60, I think) or totals of birds, however, we had an eclectic mix of passerines, many first-of-the-season friends we were glad to welcome back—or say hello to as they head for Canada just across the pond. As we walked the trails we talked of how lucky we are to be birders, enjoying the spring migration, recognizing things others take for granted or see only as part of the landscape.

Rusty Blackbird admires itself--as did we--on her way to Canada

We saw plenty of changes in our landscape of birding, too. Things like piles of trash washed in from the lake during the winter and the widening of what once were mere walking paths into roads. We noticed the changes even if the birds did not. The big question remains: Are the birds noticing the change all the Earth Day celebrations have failed to halt—climate change? Stay tuned for reports from our grandchildren.
Happy Earth Day 2013. Peace, man. Peace

All I asked this Brown Thrasher was if that was poison sumac he was eating ...

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Goings and Comings

Luna: Is she half full or half empty? Is she half anything?

I was sitting on the deck this evening, our warmest night of the year, hoping to hear the high-pitched calls of migrating birds. They’re up there and they’re moving. Tonight they had an extra boost from the southerly winds, and a bit of moonlight to help with navigation.
The clouds parted long enough for me to get a quick peak at Luna, moving through her orbit as she always does. The calendar said it would be a half moon tonight.
(Wrong. It’s a quarter moon. What we call a full moon is really only a half. The side we don’t see—the dark side—is where all the parties are. Picky, picky. Whatever it is, it’s gorgeous.)
And I thought about the migrating birds, distracted by the zillions of useless lights blazing away in our cities; buildings all lit because people with little or no concern for migrating birds (to say nothing of energy consumption) think lighted buildings are attractive.
How many birds die in collision with lighted buildings is a subject of much debate. Many hundreds of thousands is a good guess. I’ve seen estimates as high as 80 million birds dead in a single year. Birds navigate by the stars and as they descend from their migration altitudes, lighted buildings and towers distract them. If they don’t fly into the building they’ll often flutter around, like a moth attracted to a flame, and die of exhaustion.
With the increase of wind turbines we can only be sure that hundreds of thousands of more birds will die as we feed our insatiable appetite for electricity. We’ll probably never have an accurate count of deaths by turbine because when a bird that weighs 1.5 ounces gets hit by a turbine blade with a tip speed of 130 miles per hour, well, there’s not much left to pick up and count.

Pine Siskins stop for a drink on their way north

Earlier in the day I watched a pair of Pine Siskins that have spent the past couple of days fattening at our feeders. This bird is a rarity in winter for us, so to have them here at this time of the year means the pair must have been farther south and are headed to the tundra, their natural habitat. Along with the siskins was a Chipping Sparrow, a regular summer resident who probably spent the winter in the balmy south and is now back for a few months.

A Chipping Sparrow, back from its winter in the south

Coming and going—in spite of all we humans do to impede their efforts the birds survive.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

House Hunting In An Up-scale Neighborhood

House hunting always starts with a drive by, or fly by if you have wings.

My mother discovered (or admitted) she was an artist rather late in her life—sometime in her mid 90s. Her mediums were watercolor painting and ceramics. In spite of, maybe because of, her Parkinson’s disease, her work has a unique quality about it—whimsical; perky without being pretentious. Because she knew of the appreciation Susan and I have for birds, she created a strange acorn-like birdhouse that certainly appealed to her and us, but not to the birds. Ever since she made the birdhouse we’ve diligently hung it in a tree where we could appreciate its uniqueness. The most we’ve ever seen inside of the house when we took it down were a few bugs and some sticks, probably installed by a wren.
Until this year.
About a week ago we noticed some Black-capped Chickadees paying particular attention to mom’s ceramic creation. As I watched I tried not to get too anthropomorphic about what the pair was doing, however, the birds acted more like humans than humans.

Does this color make my butt look fat?

Here’s what I mean. It starts with a drive by, or fly by in this case, based on information they probably received from a friend. Then they have to take a number of looks, even though nothing changes inside. I suspect they’re sizing the place for furniture or workbenches or whatever chickadees do in their spare time. A lot of time and effort goes into selecting the right neighborhood since this is a serious departure from a hole in a tree. This is moving into an up-scale, condo neighborhood.

Okay. Food and water nearby. No ferrell cats around. Let's do it.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

No Bad Days

 Male Wood Duck practicing the Hokey-Pokey

Winter loosened its death grip on northeast Ohio today long enough for some of us to do some birding wearing less than three pairs of mittens and two coats. Susan and I opted for our 30,000-acre backyard, AKA the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, to see if spring migration is truly on the wing.

Red-wing Blackbird

As we prepared to hit the trail that leads back to a massive beaver pond, a young couple parked next to us was getting into their car. She asked her partner, “Do you think it’ll be okay to take the snow brush out of my car when we get home?” As the young man slumped into his seat he said, “Well, this is Cleveland and it’s only April, ya know.”

Tree Swallows on a date

Ya gotta be tough to live here.
Regardless of the weather, there are no bad days for birding. Some are just better than others—and today was one of the latter. I wasn’t the only photographer on the trail today. Many of the others, however, were taking pictures of the sun so that they might show their grandchildren what it looks like when the clouds roll away.

Male and female Wood Ducks

Birders know there are often signs, subtle indicators, that this day might be better than the last one. Our sign was a quick look at a Winter Wren just as we hit the trail in earnest. The bird looks like a brown ping-pong ball with feathers. No matter how hard we tried, we could not get the little guy to make a better showing. Winter Wrens are always a treat; in April they’re as rare as a, well, a sunny day.

Northern Cardinal in his best camo

I’ve heard many non-birders say that finding birds is hard to do because they’re all that same brown color. Hmmm. At least at this time of the year, nature has brightened up the scene a lot. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I believe birding might be the most colorful pastime a person can have.
Take a look at what we found in our three-mile jaunt on one small speck of land on planet Earth. These are four common birds in northeast Ohio. I just hope none of them has put away the snow brush away for the season.

Wood Duck

Saturday, January 26, 2013

You Have to See It to Believe It

 Varied Thrush

If you look up the term “birder” in certain dictionaries, you’ll discover it can mean “kindness to strangers.” Today, Susan and I saw proof of it. We went searching for an extremely rare Varied Thrush that has chosen Ohio for a winter vacation.
The Varied Thrush is a bird of the Pacific Northwest. Occasionally one will show up in this area and when it does, alarms sound and flash all over the region. The species is so outstanding, author/artist David Sibley chose the Varied Thrush out of more than 900 birds in North America to grace the cover of his Western Field Guide.
The bird in question showed up on the feeder of a young Amish couple, Naomi and Michael Yoder in Fresno, Ohio, a place so deep in the Amish community it doesn’t even show on most maps. For us it was about a 90-minute drive through some of finest scenery Ohio has to offer.
Using directions posted on the Ohio Ornithological Society listserv, we found the house and drive with ease. Well, ease because we have a four-wheel drive vehicle. And much to our delight, as we got out of the car, the bird was teed-up on the edge of the feeder, 50 yards away, giving us great, but too-brief looks.
After the bird flew and we did our high-five thingy, I spoke with Michael, a nicer young man you could not hope to meet. He was carrying a guest register and politely asked the dozen or so other birders to sign in. He excitedly told me the story of Naomi finding the bird and I suspect he’s told it many times. The guest register had more than 125 names on it, but it’s still early. As the word spreads those pages will fill.

We waited around in the 25-degree temperatures for about 20 minutes until Michael invited everyone into his house. He said the bird takes hour-long breaks so why not wait inside? This is the third day he’s been inviting strangers in to warm up. He told me that this morning about 30 people crowded into the small area off the kitchen, the best spot to watch the feeder.
The plethora of birds around the feeding station was amazing. It was while looking at a Brown Creeper that Michael spotted the thrush and got it in his spotting scope, giving us all great looks.
The Varied Thrush is one of those birds that neither words nor pictures can truly describe. Its mix of orange and black, the intricate patterns on its wings and sides …
Well, you have to see it to believe it, and even then you might not believe it. And when you read about people like Naomi and Michael Yoder, well you have to see them to believe it, too.

Varied Thrush might have been the main attraction, however, the variety of birds at the feeder while waiting for the thrush was amazing. Here, an Eastern Bluebird and Northern Cardinal. We had 24 species for the day.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Would You Prefer the Red or the White?

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Nuthatches, that is. Our part of the planet hosts only two of the four possible nuthatches in this country, the Red-breasted and the White-breasted. Well, in an attempt to be totally accurate, I have to toss in the Brown Creeper, making it five species in two genera. The creeper is in the Certhiidae genera, so … well, it’s complicated.
Our more common nuthatch is the white breasted. I know there are reports of red breasteds nesting in the region, our yard on the edge of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, is not one of those spots. Consequently, when we see the first Red-breasted Nuthatch of the season, usually early fall if we’re lucky, we’re out doing the happy dance in hopes he’ll stick around through the winter before heading back north to Canada, his usual habitat.
This season we’ve had a pair of red breasteds, along with several white breasted and, much to our enjoyment, a Brown Creeper, hanging out at the feeding station. Even a black and white bird manages to stand out on a snowy day. The creeper, one of the better camouflaged birds around is more often heard than seen.

White-breasted Nuthatch

The three species are easy enough to sort out by their distinctive color patterns and shapes. In the twilight or early morning, or when the lighting is not good, you can separate the nuthatches from the creepers by the way they climb trees. Nuthatches move head down (usually), feeding on insects or stashing sunflower seeds. The creeper works its way from the bottom of the tree, up, using its tail as a prop, much like woodpeckers. And, as if it matters, there’s the size thing: red breasteds are the more diminutive of the three, measuring about 4.5 inches in body length. Creepers come in at about 5.25 and the white breasted is the giant at 5.75 inches.
We’ve added peanuts to our feed offerings this winter and have discovered that either red or white goes fine with peanuts.

Brown Creeper

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Let's Do Lunch

They’re called Cedar Waxwings, a bird the namers got right. The name comes from what appears to be drips of red wax on the tips of the secondary wing feathers. Young birds are missing this bit of bling some ornithologists think plays a role in mate selection.
They’re a social species, measuring about seven inches in body length and found throughout the country. And for birders, they're a tough one to see at eye level. More often the birds are picking fruit in the tops of trees or flying past in flocks of a dozen or so.

We’ve been fortunate this winter to have a flock that has decimated the remaining fruits on the crabapple tree and Bradford pear trees in our yard.
Also fortunate for us, they’ve been stopping by everyday right around lunch time.
Bon appetit!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Dancing With the Moon

Jupiter, upper left, prepares to pass over the moon, January 21, 2012.

Anyone living in northeast Ohio and having astronomy as a hobby knows the perils. I read somewhere we only have 30 percent of our nights when the sky is clear. And you can guess the odds when there’s something special to see.
Tonight we got lucky, for the most part. The celestial event for tonight, long in the making, was a conjunction of the planet Jupiter (second brightest) and the moon, which is just past its waxing-quarter stage.
The odds were not in our favor: A lake-effect, snowstorm was blasting the eastern counties, and temperatures were heading toward single digits. We were still at a balmy 15 degrees at 8 p.m.
What’s life without a few challenges? The peak of the conjunction, when the moon and Jupiter would appear to be within one degree of each other (less than the width of your finger when held at arm’s length), would happen around 11:30 p.m. Bad news. By then winds were predicted to shift, bringing in clouds and snow. We’d miss the moment when it appears the Moon slides below Jupiter. Although another Moon-Jupiter conjunction is slated for March 17th, I thought it best to strike while the iron was hot—so to speak.
It was a glorious sight. Susan and I watched clouds race overhead against the moon and planet, so bright they shown through creating the illusion of the clouds being behind the moon. Slightly above and to the right of the moon, the star cluster Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, fought for attention; begging observers to try and count the sisters. To the left and below, the brilliant orange-red star, Aldebaran stood out like a directional beacon for the passing clouds.
At our location the show ended around 8:30 when light snow began to fall. It was, however, well worth the price of admission.

P.S. Just before turning in for the night, I took one last look and, guess what? We had a break in the clouds permitting this shot of the conjunction. The two pictures are separated by about three hours.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Yes, Maybe, No

Cedar Waxwing, upper left, along with rare Bohemian Waxwing

Saturday was one of those weather bonus days here in northeast Ohio. Temperatures snuggled up to the low 60s and the birding hotline made it seem even warmer with reports of special birds in the area.
Susan and I packed up the Red Comet and blasted off for Holden Arboretum, a gem of a spot in Geauga County where an extremely rare visitor, a Bohemian Waxwing, was reported late Friday. When a bird is a lifer for us both there’s no holding back.
Sometimes it’s just too easy. We pulled into the entrance of the arboretum and immediately spotted a half dozen birders. (It’s easy to spot birders when they’re on the bird. Their feet are not touching the ground and they’re making strange squeaking sounds, like “heereee heeree”.)
Sure enough, there the bird sat in the sun with a large flock of Cedar Waxwings. Yes! Got it. Click, click. Then wooooosh, off the flock went. Sharp-eyed Susan was able to get her spotting scope on the bird in a far-off tree, much to the enjoyment of late arrivers.

Common Redpoll

Then it was on to another spot within the arboretum where a second rare visitor, a Hoary Redpoll, had been seen and reported. This was not a lifer for us, but a rare species we seen only once before and needed a better look at. Again, it was easy to find the spot where the bird had been seen. A dozen or so of the region’s better-known birders were already on the scene, politely debating the merits of several possible Hoary Redpolls. These little guys (the birds, not the birders) are a bit of a challenge to separate out from the more common, aaaa, Common Redpoll. Subtle differences in color, streaking, bill size, under-tail coverts ... Right. Birders spend a lot of time looking at butts.
We saw plenty of redpolls. We feel secure that we saw at least one Hoary Redpoll, maybe two. So tick that one off, even if it is in the Maybe column.
Our third target bird, the crossbills, and we had our choice of Red or White-winged species, proved to be no shows. They’ve been reported throughout the area, just not where we happened to be at the time. The bright side is that there are still 67 days until spring, so these visitors from the north will be around for a while. Stay tuned.

It's a bit lighter in color, beak a bit smaller, pink a bit less pink. Is it a Hoary Redpoll. Maybe.