Saturday, February 28, 2009

Being true to myself

One of the things I realized as I stepped back from my blog a few days ago was that I was not having fun with it. I might have been presenting interesting and/or informative material, but writing those posts was not very pleasant for me. Writing posts where I have to do even a minimal amount of research is quite difficult for me, and those posts are absolutely the most difficult for me to do. And they are not fun. They feel too much like writing papers for school.

It has become apparent to me that this is mostly a creative outlet for me, a chance for me to show and share the beauty I see in nature in a creative way. Getting out there with my camera and seeing the world in new ways is an important thing to me, and I truly think it is the best way for me to communicate what I see and how I feel about it.

The reason I'm spelling this all out for you is to a.) give you a good idea of what to expect here in the future, and b.) perhaps help others who are experiencing blogger malaise to find their way again. If blogging has been getting you down, don't be afraid to take a break. Post when you're inspired. And think about what matters most to you in publishing your blog. Don't try to focus in too many directions (unless you like doing that, of course!), or you might burn out.

As Dave said to me the other day (and I'm paraphrasing here), "It's not "doing something for fun" if it's not fun anymore."

And so.... on to the fun stuff!

Beech leaf in grass

Winter grasses in evening light

Where ice meets flowing water

Sunset on the icy creek

Sycamore leaf - suspended

Ice and leaves

Day's end reflection...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Plume Zoom #6, answers revealed

Okay, I admit I was a little harsh on you with this one. I didn't give you a whole lot to go on. While none of the guesses were correct, they were noble guesses indeed, and not without merit.

Let's review:

With regards to the one on the left, does this help?

Still unsure? How about this?

The correct answer is a female Red-winged Blackbird. The striping alone in that "teaser" picture really didn't give you enough information. Plus, you couldn't get any idea of the size of the bird (thus, Pine Siskin was a pretty darn good guess!)

According to Cornell's All About Birds site (and also according to my Peterson's guide), Red-wing Blackbirds are year-round residents in most of the United States? So where the HECK do they hang out when it's not breeding season? I've never seen a RWBB in fall or winter.

Some interesting facts about the RWBB:
  • The Red-winged Blackbird forms roosting congregations in all months of the year. In the summer it will roost in small numbers at night in the wetlands where it forages and breeds. In winter, it can form huge congregations of several million birds, which congregate in the evening and spread out each morning. Some may travel as far as 80 km (50 mi) between the roosting and feeding sites. It commonly shares its winter roost with other blackbird species and European Starlings.
  • Different populations and subspecies of Red-winged Blackbirds vary markedly in size and proportions. An experiment was conducted that moved nestlings between populations and found that the chicks grew up to resemble their foster parents. This study indicated that much of the difference seen between populations is the result of the different environments.
Next up, our little yellow friend. Here's a full view:

Isn't he cute? This is a Pine Warbler. I about drove myself crazy trying to ID this bird last year. After looking at the map for this little one, I see that its range is actually quite small. Doesn't get west of eastern Texas, and it only gets that far west down south. As I learned from experience last year, this is one of the first warbles to return north, arriving as early as February in areas just north of their winter range. This warbler was first spotted at our feeders March 9th last year.

Cool facts:
  • The Pine Warbler is the only warbler that eats large quantities of seeds, primarily those of pines. This seed-eating ability often brings them to bird feeders where they eat seeds in addition to suet.
  • It is rarely found in deciduous vegetation except during migration.

The reason I chose these birds for this Plume Zoom is because there's a possibility one or both of these birds might show up at YOUR feeders in the next couple of weeks, and I wanted you to be prepared. Sorry for the level of difficulty.

Until next time...

Bird info provided by All About Birds.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Snow and Zick dough

This past weekend we got a little reminder that it's still winter in the form of cold temps and some light snow. When I woke up Sunday morning to see a nice coating of the white stuff, I thought to myself, "This is the perfect time to put out some Zick dough!" (Don't know what the heck I'm talkin' about? Click here to get more info and the recipe for homemade suet dough that Julie Zickefoose has so kindly shared with us all. It's crazy easy to make. If you haven't tried this yet and decide you want to, please heed her warning to not feed it in warm weather as it may cause gout.)

To my surprise, only a small number of the birds seemed interested in it. I've been offering it for a couple of weeks now, so I would have expected the birds to not be wary of it any more. But that's okay. My #1 customer was a White-breasted Nuthatch, and he was very glad to not really have to share it with anyone else.

His only other competition was a Dark-eyed Junco, who only had 1 bite that I saw...

And lady Downy, but she kept to the suet cage, while Mr. Nuthatch stuck with the railing.

He checks out the spread in front of him... notice that long trail of crumbles? It will diminish...

... piece by piece.

Snagging the last piece of "railing dough":

And now, dear readers, I have a confession to make: my heart's not been in the blogging thing for a little while now. I've decided I need to take a bit of a break. You can expect my posts to be a little more sporadic, and heavier on photos, lighter on words. I still have lots of photos I want to share, but text-heavy posts are getting to be a little more time-consuming than I can handle at present. I hope you'll hang in there with me.

And don't worry, I'll still post the answer to the latest Plume Zoom tomorrow. Sorry I created such a stumper this time around!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Plume Zoom number 6

Where does the time go? I see it's been almost a month since my last Plume Zoom quiz! Sorry about that. Since it's been so long, I'll make this one a twofer.

Both of these birds made the disguising easy for me by either flying between the trees or flying out of the frame altogether. Do you know who they are?

More pictures, some interesting facts, and the answers on Wednesday!
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Friday, February 20, 2009

Dreaming of summer (SWF)

I don't know what the weather's like where you are, but we've been having some yo-yo weather lately. Cold. Warmer. Warm! Cold. Really cold. Warm! Ugh!!!! I've got spring fever in a big way!
This time of year, I actually start getting so antsy for better, warmer, sunnier weather, that I skip ahead in my mind and start dreaming about summer!
I'm tired of wearing layers, tired of wearing long-johns and hats and scarves and boots. I want to wear shorts and Tevas! I wanna go paddling in my kayak, dang it!
Oh look, Dave's inviting us all to go for a paddle! I'll be right there honey!

All photos taken last summer during our time on Walloon Lake, Walloon, MI.

Want to see more sky photos? Then head on over to Skywatch Friday. You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Great Backyard Bird Count 2009 - day 4 report

Okay, Monday (2/16) was the last day of the Great Backyard Bird Count. It was a quiet birding day for me, as I chose to use the last day of the count to watch just my yard. It was kind of nice to count my yard outside of Project Feederwatch time (I always count on Saturdays and Sundays for that). You're not allowed to count flyovers or birds that you hear but don't see for PFW, so I enjoyed being able to add a few extra species to the list.

I only had about 15 minutes to count before I left for work in the morning, and I was certainly able to get SOME birds in that short amount of time, but quite a few of the birds on my list got added while I was at work.... watching the live feedercam from my desk! Cheating, you say? No way! I only counted birds that I could absolutely identify. For example, the birds that come to the peanut feeder are very easy to make out on the cam, so Tufted Titmouse and Blue Jay were no-brainers. I also got a Chickadee hanging on one of the pinecone feeders, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, who hopped from the suet cage to the corn cob (they're the only bird I ever see eating the corn, which is supposed to be there for the squirrels... but of course they prefer the bird seed!) I also got a Downy Woodpecker on a suet cage (I know how they compare in size to a Hairy, and the size of both in relation to the suet cages).

Red-bellied Woodpecker on the corn cob

Snag that peanut!

Dang, such a handsome bird!

Blue Jay plans his attack

After I got home from work I spent some time out on the deck watching our reliable little Song Sparrows feeding on the ground under the deck. Boy, they sure are starting to sing their spring songs! (Say THAT 3 times fast!)

Here's the final tally...

Count for yard (day 4):
Northern Cardinal (7)
American Goldfinch (2)
Mourning Dove (5)
White-breasted Nuthatch (2)
Chickadee (5)
Blue Jay (1)
Tufted Titmouse (2)
Red-bellied Woodpecker (1)
Downy Woodpecker (1)
Red-Tailed Hawk - flyover (1)
Brown Creeper - heard only (1)
Song Sparrow (5)
White-throated Sparrow (1)
Pine Siskin - heard only (1)
Pileated Woodpecker - heard only (1)

Now I need to go submit all my data on the GBBC site! I had lots of fun, I hope you all did too!

See you at next year's Great Backyard Bird Count!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Preoccupied with poo

I apologize, but there will be an interruption in my reporting on my GBBC experiences. I'm preoccupied with poop.

Fresh(-ish) calling card... but who left it?

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, we came along some animal excrement while hiking the abandoned rail bed at Lake Hope during day 3 of the GBBC. When I first saw it, I assumed it was someone's pellets (coughed up indigestible matter). I didn't think it was scat because I had never seen such a long continuous strand of poop before! But then again, I've never really seen a pellet before, either, so why did I go in that direction in the first place? I dunno. Birds on the brain, I guess.

Degraded poo

Anyway, this Science Chimp in training could not let a good nature mystery go unsolved, so I hit the ol' Google up for some information. Since I said that the material looked intestinal in shape, I figured it was more likely someone's poop rather than something an animal coughed up, so I started looking for info about scat.

After looking at various photos and reading descriptions, I'm fairly certain it is coyote scat that we're looking at here, for the following reasons:
  • The presence of hair would indicate that we're dealing with a predator.
  • Somewhere along the way I read that coyotes often follow well-defined paths, and this was right in the middle of the rail bed.
  • Coyotes are certainly present in this region of the state.
  • It could also be fox scat, but according to info found on the web (sorry, I can't find my source page now) it is most likely coyote scat based on its size (the diameter and length of fox scat is apparently smaller than that of coyote scat). The length of these pieces was surely a good 6", and it was at least 1" in diameter.
I wish I would have taken more photos, but I'm sure 2 poo photos is more than enough for some. By the way, while I was doing various "scat" searches, I came across the most awesome thing: a scat scarf! Check it out!
It is described as follows
SCAT SCARF (DENIM BLUE). This unique visual aid features scat drawings that are twice life size, sketched from samples found in the field. Includes: ringtail, shrew, bat, racoon, armadillo, opossum, mouse and vole, bear, rabbit and hare, prairie dog, porcupine, squirrel and chipmunk, gopher, marmot and woodchuck, beaver, muskrat, pronghorn antelope, fox, weasel, mountain lion, bobcat, mountain goat, river otter, pine marten, skunk, mink, badger, wolverine, bighorn sheep, elk, deer and moose. This wearable field guide is great for field trips, hikes, or as a conversation piece. Measures 21 inches square.
Interesting... no coyote scat on that scarf. Regardless, I still think it's pretty neat. It's sold by Acorn Naturalists. I'll be requesting a catalog from these folks!

All right birdy lovers, sorry for the diversion. Tomorrow we will resume our regularly scheduled program with GBBC day 4!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Great Backyard Bird Count 2009 - day 3 report

Day 3 of the GBBC turned out to be my best day yet! I bested the total number of species for my backyard by 1 (as compared to day 2), recorded my overall highest number of species at another location, and added some completely new species to the mix.

I counted my yard sporadically throughout the day, and spent about 30 minutes in the evening watching the ground feeders go crazy under the feeders at our deck. Here's the yard count.

Count for my backyard (day 3):
Northern Cardinal (6)
Pine Siskin (7)
American Goldfinch (10)
Mourning Dove (8)
Chickadee (5)
White-breasted Nuthatch (2)
Red-bellied Woodpecker (2)
Downy Woodpecker (1)
Tufted Titmouse (2)
Song Sparrow (5)
Hairy Woodpecker (1)
Blue Jay (2)
Eastern Towhee (1)
White-throated Sparrow (6)
American Crow (4)

Some notes about my backyard count:
  • This is the first time I've seen a Hairy Woodpecker in 3 weeks, which is unusual. Most of the time there is at least 1 Downy and 1 Hairy around when I'm counting. This is definitely the longest lag in between sightings since the FeederWatch season started in November. FINALLY, I got to add a new species to my Great Bird Count of February list!
  • First time I've spotted 2 Red-bellied's simultaneously this FeederWatch season. I'm hoping it's a nesting pair. I love seeing Red-bellied babies in the summer!
  • The Pine Siskins continue to hang in there! This irruption year for the Siskins has been all the buzz in the birding community, and there's a blurb about the "invasion" over on the GBBC site, along with a very cool animated map that tracks the Siskin's presence in the lower 48 states from 2000-2008. It looks like this year the irruption is most heavily concentrated in the eastern states, but they're all over the place. It will be interesting to see what the final numbers look like, both for GBBC and PFW.
Aside from counting in the yard, Dave and I traveled to Lake Hope State Park. This is another nearby park that we like to frequent for paddling, hiking, bike riding (Dave) and birding. It's also where we go in the spring for a local migration bird walk held on Migratory Bird weekend.

Several years ago we became aware that there is a large colony of Great Blue Herons that mate and raise their young at the Lake, but we've never been able to spot many nests because we've gone too late in the season (i.e. after the trees leafed out, blocking our view to the tops of the trees). This was a secondary reason for going to the Lake this weekend, to see if we could spot any nests yet. And spot them we did! I counted approximately 28 nests. Unfortunately there was not a heron to be seen, but I'm guessing they were all out fishing. Or, perhaps some of the nests were left over from last year? It's hard to say. I hope to go back soon, this time more towards evening, in hopes of seeing some actual herons on or around those nests!

Great Blue Heron nests high up in the Sycamore trees

This is as zoomed-in as I could get on the nests

And this is what they really looked like - very far away, and very high up! The nest is the little dot in the middle, about 1/3 of the way down.

We hiked along this path, an abandoned rail bed. Hopefully one day this rail bed will be turned into a bike path, but for now it's easily accessible on foot. It's lined by sycamores and river birch on both sides, and it's a little wet and swampy on either side. It's seriously good habitat for lots of different birds.

Wet areas like this are a favorite spot for Red-wing Blackbirds and various warblers during spring migration. As a side note, I noticed that there is no marsh/wetland habitat designation listed on the GBBC list, which I think is a bit odd. I think I might have to ask them about that...

A recent wind storm knocked down a lot of trees, and this area was no exception.

No worries! We able to snake our way through the downed tree branches

In addition to all of the birds that we heard and saw, we came upon some other interesting stuff. I think they are raptor pellets (the coughed up indigestible parts of their prey, such as hair, feathers, and exoskeleton). But the more I look at pellet pictures online, I am beginning to doubt my conclusion. Here's one indigestible mass, presumably old since it was all flattened out, dried and blowing in the wind.

Here's another example, slightly more fresh, I think. (We're looking at the hairy mass in the middle, to the right of the stick.)

The thing that makes me think it's not a pellet is the fact that it's not just a lump. Instead, its more of a long rope-like mass, kind of coiled up like string that's been twirled. It almost seems like it mimics intestine shape rather than gizzard shape. Anyone have any thoughts? Science Chimp, if you're out there: care to weigh in? Am I barking up the wrong tree with the whole pellet thing?

Okay, sorry to get so side-tracked here! Here's our list for Lake Hope. Please note that significantly more time was spent at Lake Hope than any other count site (other than my yard), and the result: more bird species! I think if we would have stayed longer we would have encountered even more species.

Count for Lake Hope:
American Crow (3)
Chickadee (2)
Blue Jay - heard only (1)
Northern Flicker - heard only (2)
Red-bellied Woodpecker (2)
Eastern Towhee - heard only (2)
Dark-eyed Junco (2)
Song Sparrow - heard only (1)
Red-shouldered Hawk (2)
Northern Cardinal (2)
Carolina Wren - heard only (1)
Tufted Titmouse (1)
American Goldfinch (1)
Eastern Bluebird (1)
White-breasted Nuthatch (1)
Downy Woodpecker (2)

Another place I counted on day 3 of GBBC was a little patch of roadside just a few miles from my house. We drove past it on our way to Lake Hope, and I noticed a group of Mallards swimming around in some standing water.

Lo and behold, they were still there hours after the Lake Hope trip. They didn't stick around long, though, and not much else was around, either. I did pick up some hawks, though!

Count for roadside:
Mallard (14)
Northern Flicker - heard only (1)
American Crow - heard only (2)
Red-shouldered Hawk (2)
Red-tailed Hawk (1)

Tomorrow, we'll wrap up my GBBC experience!

Great Backyard Bird Count 2009 - day 2 report

Day 2 of the Great Backyard Bird Count turned out pretty well, especially compared to day 1. I birded in 2 locations, in addition to my own yard.

The first location was Fox Lake, a lake located about 10 minutes from our house. The lake itself is around 50 acres in size, and is situated in a 421-acre wildlife area known as the Fox Lake Wildlife Area. The land and water is owned and managed by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Wildlife. In addition:
Fox Lake is one of six impoundments within the Margaret’s Creek Watershed which provide regional flood control. The dam is designed to retain large quantities of water during flood periods and to release the water at a standard rate of flow through a fixed-sized outlet. Wildlife management work includes protection and improvement of existing woodlands, selective maintenance of shrubland and openland, and maintenance of openland on a small portion of the area by cropland management. Hunting and fishing are the major recreational uses, along with nature study, hiking, boating, and bird watching. (ODNR publication 214 (R994))
This is one of several local lakes that we like to visit in the warmer months for paddling, but it made for some good birding on this particular day. There is a trail that follows along one side of the lake, and it was along this trail that we made our count.

Looking out on the lake

The lakeside trail

Count for Fox Lake:
American Crow - flyover (3)
Red-bellied Woodpecker - heard only (2)
Downy Woodpecker - heard only (1)
Canada Goose (2)
Tufted Titmouse (1)
Blue Jay (5)
Barred Owl - heard only (1)
Norther Flicker - heard only (1)
Chickadee (1)
White-breasted Nuthatch - heard only (1)
Pileated Woodpecker - flyover (1)

The second count location was Sells Park on the east side of Athens. It's not a park like the Richland Ave park where I counted on Friday. Instead, this a recreation area full of lots of trails for hikers, runners, dog walkers and mountain bikers. The trail system has been developed a lot over the last 4 years or so, and it now links over to Strouds Run Park and Dow Lake. This particular part of Athens seems dichotomous to me, because over here is this wonderful natural area full of trees and trails and parks, but drive literally 2 minutes down the hill from the Sells Park parking area, and you land on East State Street, which is the main drag on this side of town, home to many restaurants, stores, banks, gas stations, car lots and the like.

Looking out on the city from Lookout Rock

The white roof is our WalMart. Don't get me started...

This is the view you get when you turn around about 180 degrees - poof, the boxes and stores are gone!

With my partner in crime - and my Valentine! I thought it was very sweet of Dave to go bird hunting with me on Valentine's Day.

The bird count at the park was less than I expected, but we still got a good tally of different species.

Count for Sells Park:
Pileated Woodpecker - heard only (1)
Amercian Crow (2)
Red-bellied Woodpecker - heard only (1)
Northern Flicker - heard only (1)
White-breasted Nuthatch (2)
Chickadee - heard only (1)
Tufted Titmouse (2)
Northern Cardinal - heard only (1)

And finally....
Count for my backyard:
Northern Cardinal (5)
Chickadee (3)
Red-bellied Woodpecker (1)
Downy Woodpecker (2)
Tufted Titmouse (2)
Pine Siskin (8)
American Goldfinch (7)
Mourning Dove (15)
Dark-eye Junco (2)
White-breasted Nuthatch (2)
Song Sparrow (2)
White-throated Sparrow (2)
Blue Jay - heard only (1)
American Crow (3)

A note about the "heard only" and "flyover" designations: When submitting counts to the official GBBC, one is not required to differentiate between birds seen in trees/on the ground as opposed to flyovers or those not seen at all but only heard. I'm making the differentiations on my personal lists just for my own record keeping.