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.