Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My Birdy Big Year

When looking back on things, whether it's a month, a season, or a year, it is in our nature, I think, to look for the high points. I had many high points this past year, too many to name, actually, but some stand out more than others and are worthy of being recounted in a year-end round-up fashion.

I knew going into 2011 that it was going to be a big year for me as far as birding was concerned, and I was right. The entire year has been a turning point in my birding career, and I feel like I have started to come into my own. Do I have lots more to learn? Sure, but that's a big part of the fun. Lots of details finally started to click for me this year, and I'm happy to say that I'm beginning to see a bigger picture. I don't see "just a bird" anymore, but also how the bird is connected to the habitat it uses, and how we are affecting those habitats (for better and for worse). I'm also paying more attention to bird behavior, and find myself continually asking "what does that mean? why are you doing that?" My own birding "philosophy" continues to evolve, which I will share at some point (I already have to a certain extent, when I wrote about the Emotional Life List), and I watch with curious interest some of the discussions other birders have about things like "what differentiates a birder from a bird watcher?"

A male Magnolia Warbler, captured and released at the New River Birding and Nature Festival, May 2011
The New River Birding and Nature Festival that I attended in May in West Virginia went a long way to expanding my bird knowledge. A full week of birding immersion was better than I ever could have imagined. I look forward to making a similar trip in May of 2012, this time up in Michigan. It will be a different set of birds, different habitat, different flora, but some of the same friends will be there, and I have no doubt the experience will be spectacular.

A Red-eyed Vireo fledgling, probably newly out of the nest the day this photo was taken.
Breeding pair of Orchard Orioles, a first-year male on the left and a female on the right.

Participating in the Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas this summer was also a fantastic experience that contributed to my growing avian knowledge base. This was an activity that I took part in largely on my own (as opposed to a festival or group birding outing), and it was empowering to be able to recognize and identify some new birds without assistance, as well as to find evidence of breeding either in the form of a nest, adults carrying food, or in some rare cases, fledglings that were not too many days out of the nest. I still remember the joy in my heart at finding several teeny Red-eyed Vireo fledges along the side of our road, and the great excitement at tracking down a begging Blue-winged Warbler on our neighbors' property and a whole party of begging Ovenbird babies just feet from my own front door! (A challenge for upcoming breeding seasons is to find an actual Ovenbird nest on our property, which is a tall order, as their nests are notoriously well-camouflage and difficult to find!)

A Great Egret flies over Meadowbrook Marsh near Lakeside, OH
The last big birding "event" for the year was the Midwest Birding Symposium (mark your calendars for September 19-22, 2013, when the symposium will be back at Lakeside, OH!), where I found myself with so much to do and see that although we went up to Lakeside a few days before the symposium even started, I still didn't get to visit all of the birding hotspots on my list. This time around we took part in the sunset cruise (we missed it when we went up in 2009), which was my first pelagic-style experience (although I'm not sure if riding a boat in the windy chop of Lake Erie really counts as pelagic cruise). I was surprised and pleased to see many birds at Magee Marsh at close range. Magee is known as a mecca for spring migrating birds (they rest there before crossing Lake Erie to get to Canada), but it is also obviously a good resting spot for them during fall migration as well.

The male of our nesting Eastern Phoebe pair after being banded.
Speaking of migration, another thing that I got a little more in tune with this year was the arrival patterns that define spring migration. Before breeding season even begins, it pays to listen to when the year-round-resident birds start to sing, sometimes as early as February. Likewise, I listen especially close every day starting in early April as I await the return of our nesting Eastern Phoebes. The Woodcocks also start moving into southeast Ohio in mid- to late April. Come the beginning of May, the floodgates open, the trees are flowering and new singers are added to the dawn chorus every day. Just thinking about it right now on a damp December evening makes me giddy!

Surprised?  Scared?  Happy?  Who knows what's going through this little Saw-whet Owl's mind here, but it was love at first sight for me!
 An especially poignant moment came on my birthday in early November, when I got to not only observe the banding of a Saw-whet Owl, but I even got to hold, "pet," and release the bird. You can read the full details of the experience HERE.

Yours truly giving a birding program at the Athens Public Library in January 2011.
 As I look forward to 2012, I anticipate a similar array of experiences, each with something new to teach me. I also hope to engage more with my local community, teaching them about birds and showing them why I think birds are awesome, and just maybe setting a foundation in place for a local birding group, which this town is sorely lacking. I dearly love my birding friends from other parts of Ohio and beyond, but I also want to make more birding friends right in my own back yard.

Here's wishing you all a very birdy 2012!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dauntless Downy Woodpecker

At our feeders nestled in the woods, 5 species of woodpeckers have been observed dining on suet, and occasionally on sunflower seeds and peanuts. In order of appearance from least to most common, those woodpeckers are: Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker (yellow-shafted form), Red-bellied Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker. On very rare occasions I will see Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers on our property, but they have never come to the feeders.

As you might imagine, the least common visitors get the biggest hoots and hollers from me, and are most likely to find themselves in the cross-hairs of my camera lens. This is unfair to the more common visitors, such as the Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers. As I was looking for photos to illustrate this post, I noticed that I don't have very many photos of Downy Woodpeckers, and the ones that I do have all look virtually the same.

Yup, that's a male Downy Woodpecker clinging to the suet cage. We can tell that it's a male by the little note of red on the back of his head; female Downies have no red on their head.

While I may not jump up and down every time I see a Downy Woodpecker, I certainly do appreciate each appearance they make. They are easily visible year-round, and the parents will bring their begging fledges to our suet feeders once they are old enough to leave the safety of the nest. One time, about 5 years ago, they nested in a snag just above our driveway, and we were alerted to said nest by the incessant begging of the babies within. It took a few days to figure out where this high-pitched squeaking, reminiscent of a mouse with a megaphone, was coming from, and I was happy to learn that it was a clutch of successfully hatched wee Downies.

Since woodpeckers aren't songbirds, we don't really think of them making much noise except for pecking and drumming with their bills on trees or fence posts. They do emit a number of vocalizations, though. Downies make a loud "pick!" sound as well as a whinnying-type of call that descends in pitch at the end. They also make some other squeaky and churring calls, especially when several birds are in close proximity to each other. The Downy population in our woods has slowly been on the rise since I started counting them for Project FeederWatch seven years ago. At first we would only see 1 or 2 Downies at a time, but now it is common to have at least 4 within view at once. I know there are more of them around than that, but keeping them all in sight at one time is tricky! When they are not perched on a feeder, they are in constant motion, hitching up and down the trees in search of bugs in and under the bark, and during the winter it seems like they are constantly bickering, harassing each other, and shooing each other away.

A Downy at the homemade bird dough bowl, watching someone else fly by. Perhaps another Downy?

This year I have noticed an interesting trend among my Downies. Normally when I step outside to refill the feeders, or just to have a look around on the deck, all the birds scatter except for the fearless Carolina Chickadees. Now the Downies are joining the ranks as the next species to be unperturbed by my presence. I can stand right next to the suet feeders with a Downy at arm's length, munching away like it doesn't even see me. Yet another bird whose trust I have presumably earned. I feel mighty honored to stand so close to these fantastic creatures.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Frost Hunt

tiny buds 
await spring
A recent string of cold nights with clear skies and calm winds made for some delightfully frosty mornings, bringing the landscape into a characteristic state of being right on cue for the first days of December. These frosty mornings occurred, of course, during weekdays, when there was no time for stopping and capturing photos that could be savored later. I eagerly watched the weather forecast for the weekend, and was happy to see that conditions would be ripe for a good frost on Saturday morning. Excellent! Finally, I could go on a Frost Hunt! The title alone conjured crisp images in my mind, and helped me to get myself out of bed early on a morning when I might otherwise prefer to sleep in.

It wasn't until I got outside and really started looking at how the frost clung to leaves and flowers that I realized that it had been far too long since my last truly connected encounter with the land. It ended up being one of those multi-sensory experiences that I truly cherish.

Bee Balm seed head, covered in frost
In addition to each flower or blade of grass that I stopped to admire, there was the singing and calling of the birds. There's that mischievous Blue Jay that wants everyone to believe he's a Red-shouldered Hawk just from the sound of his voice, but I know his true identity. A Pileated Woodpecker sounded off amid the treeline along the ridge top, with a slightly erratic flight that took it out of sight. Song Sparrows gave their raspy call note, and then one daring male took me by surprise with a short song, repeated several times - something I did not expect to hear in early December. His song, combined with the smell of ever-present ground ivy, momentarily tricked my brain into thinking it was spring, but the frost crystals jolted me back to the reality that winter is just around the corner.

My "hunt" took place just across the road from my house, in an area with which I have become very familiar over the years. Photographing the flora had me feeling like I was among old friends, and they welcomed me happily, not caring that I had been away for a while. Each plant has its own "personality," both in the growing season and in the quieter times of fall and winter. Sometimes I think it is easier to appreciate the lines and curves of the plants in the dormant season, because most of the color is drained and withered away, leaving only the bare essentials to draw your attention.

Even so, some color remains to enliven the landscape!

Mysterious features become more prominent with frost glistening on them. I found many of these galls on the stalks of goldenrod plants, most of which had a perfect hole drilled right in the center on one side. Downy Woodpeckers and Carolina Chickadees are known to excavate these galls in order to get to the goldenrod gall fly larvae that is contained within. This is a phenomenon I have yet to observe myself, but one I very much hope to see in the future.

Virgin's Bower is one of my absolute favorite flowers to observe in fall and winter. The feathery fronds, to which the plant's seeds are attached, catch the light of sunrise and sunset with perfection, and frost adds yet another dimension of beauty to them.

Teasel is another flower that presents strong architectural interest in fall and winter. Interestingly, the frost made the seed head look much softer than usual, tuning what normally looks like something akin to a porcupine into an object resembling a soft brush. The bracts at the base of the seed head, however, retained their harsh curls, reminding me of Medusa's head of snake hair.

Next, the sun comes out...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Puffballs, part II

Continuing with my puffball adventures, we move from the behemoth to the dwarf. These next mushrooms that I'm about to share are VERY small compared to the large puffballs from my last post. I would gauge these little guys to be around 1/50th the size of that huge puffball that was at least as big as my shoe.

At first glance, you might mistake them for a bunch of nuts on the forest floor. Perhaps we have stumbled upon a squirrel's not-so-secret stash of acorns?

Upon closer inspection it becomes apparent, though, that they are stacked a little TOO neatly to be nuts. Indeed these are mushrooms, and as far as I can tell, they fall into the puffball category.

While most were found existing only in large clusters, a few were visible singly or in pairs. I should have put something next to these to give you an idea of their size, but I would describe them as being as large as a cherry tomato. While I cannot claim with much certainty their identity, I am inclined to say these are probably the pear-shaped puffball, Lycoperdon pyriforme, a species that is known for growing in clusters.

Mushrooms may be one of the easiest subjects to photograph in nature. They are photogenic, they don't fly or walk away from you, and rarely do they blow in the wind. A nice stationary subject, not something you come across very often in nature photography!

I hope you've enjoyed this look into the world of puffballs. I will admit that I know very little about mushrooms and fungi, but the more I photograph them, the more my interest becomes piqued. One more item to add to my list of things to learn about!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Late summer puffballs

Today has been a typical wet, dreary November day. Well, except that the temperatures seem a little above average. Regardless, I am mourning the loss of summer, and have been for a number of weeks. Now would be a good time to go back and reminisce a little. Take a look at some of the cool stuff I found out and about during those verdant, warm, long days.

I would forgive you if you didn't identify this correctly. It's the kind of thing you might not necessarily investigate at close range. Wait, who am I kidding? If you're reading this blog, you probably like getting up close to things in nature! But I would understand if you thought maybe this was a zoomed-in photo of the hide of a giraffe.

I would also understand if you thought this was a close-up of a print of some turkish art. I am reminded of both of these things when I look at these photos.

It is, however, neither of these things. It's a lovely (gigantic!) puffball mushroom. My shoe next to it gives you some idea as to the scale. If there are any mycologists or mycophiles out in the audience who can pin this down to a species, I'd love to hear from you!

Puffball crater

They seemed especially abundant this year, mostly occurring in groupings of 2 or 3 (sometimes more). From afar they all look the same, but up close, you can see how unique each one is.

This grouping caught my fancy. Almost like a family posing for their portrait. I love how there's a line in the middle 'shroom that seems to carry right into the pattern of bottom one.

Ahhh, mushrooms in a field of green with a backdrop of green leaves. I think maybe I can still smell the summer air if I try hard enough...

Friday, November 18, 2011

Interesting feeder observations

During the Project FeederWatch season I keep a closer eye on what's going on at my feeders, for obvious reasons. When FeederWatch is not in session (i.e. spring, summer and some of fall), however, I don't always pay a lot of attention to the feeders, usually due to a combination of being busy with other outdoor stuff and lack of bird activity at the seed buffet.

A few weeks before this year's FeederWatch season began I did notice a few interesting feeding behaviors.

Interesting behavior #1 - Carolina Chickadees eating thistle seed.

Thistle is widely know as the caviar equivalent for finches of all types. I have never seen thistle listed as a seed that chickadees will go for. If you look at the various charts that show what birds will eat what kind of food at your feeders, you will usually see two listings: one for what is "preferred" and one for what is "readily eaten" (read: tolerated). Thistle doesn't show up as either of those choices for chickadees. And yet, my chickadees really got into it during a period where I wasn't offering sunflower or safflower seeds.

Chickadee-dee-dee clinging on the thistle feeder, and also sharing the feeder with an American Goldfinch.

Once I started offering black-oil sunflower and safflower seed again, I thought for sure they would ditch the thistle, but they proved that theory wrong. They will, of course, partake of sunflower, safflower and suet, but they still also come to the thistle. Anyone else out there ever see their chickadees eat thistle? I know the Juncos will eat it, but only on the ground. A friend once told me that Mourning Doves would routinely eat thistle at his feeders (he had a thistle feeder with perches on it; otherwise, I wouldn't have believed him because there's no way a Mourning Dove could cling to a feeder like the one I have pictured here.)

This proves to me that it's not just one rogue individual who developed a taste for the thistle; at LEAST two of them are fond of it. And look how those toes are clinging to the mesh-like material of the feeder!

Interesting behavior #2 - Northern Cardinals eating suet... from the suet cages.

This one surprised me even more than the chickadees eating thistle seed! Why? Because, typically, cardinals are not birds that cling to things well. Other birds are much more suited to this (especially woodpeckers and nuthatches, but also chickadees, wrens, titmice and finches) simply because of the way their bodies are built and adaptations they have developed over time. How often do you see a cardinal clinging to the side of a tree? Never! Perched on a branch or on the ground is most common, or on a flat feeder like a platform or other type of feeder where they have room to stand. I have seen them attempt (and sometimes succeed) to perch on tube feeders that have those small, 4-inch long perches, but even that is often a tremendous struggle because it's hard for them to keep their balance. So hanging onto a suet cage was beyond my comprehension. (Please excuse the graininess of the following photos - the light was low, so camera settings where cranked up to compensate, making for less than perfect images.)

Cardinal on top of the suet cage? Okay, I can deal with that. I have watched them bend over and peck suet from the top of the cake when it's still new and tall enough to come up to the top of the cage.

Wow, far out! Not only is she exhibiting excellent clinging skills, but great maneuverability as well. Notice how she's making her way down closer to that tiny sliver of suet cake at the bottom of the cage.

As with the chickadees turning to thistle, the cardinals were turning to suet because there was no sunflower or safflower seed available. They continue to repeat this when the seed runs out, but UNLIKE the chickadees, they abandon the suet as soon as seed becomes available again. So the suet is an item of last resort for the cardinals, whereas the thistle got incorporated into the daily diet for the chickadees.

We don't normally see suet "marketed" toward cardinals because most suet is sold in cakes or plugs and offered in feeders that aren't cardinal-friendly. I learned last winter, however, that cardinals DO LIKE suet if it's offered in a way that they can get to it easily. When I make my homemade bird dough, I crumble it into different-sized chunks and scatter it along the deck railing, and also put it in a small dish. They really took to that last year. Knowing this, it makes me wonder if the cardinals that I'm seeing on the suet cages this year are the same cardinals that ate my bird dough last winter, and somehow recognize the suet cakes as something similar, and "oh, hey, this stuff might be good, too, and I'll try my darndest to get to it!"

Suet score!

I would love to hear your stories of odd or interesting feeder behaviors! Feel free to share in the comments.

Monday, November 14, 2011

May the counting begin!

Project FeederWatch got underway this past weekend. This will be my 7th season counting for this citizen science project run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and I can't wait to see what kind of new and interesting things I'll see at my feeders this winter, whether it be a new species, a record-breaking flock of Grackles, or a never before seen behavior or interaction among the birds.

Already I have some interesting data to look at from my first counting session. Looks like things are getting off to a start that is practically identical to last season. The exact same species showed up, with only the tiniest variation in the numbers of each. How about that?

species wknd of 11.13.10 wknd of 11.12.11
Mourning Dove 13 13
Red-bellied Woodpecker 1 1
Downy Woodpecker 2 2
Hairy Woodpecker 1 2
Carolina Chickadee 4 5
Tufted Titmouse 3 2
White-breasted Nuthatch 3 4
Northern Cardinal 2 2
American Goldfinch 9 10
Total individuals 38 41

Looking back on past seasons' data, I should expect to see some Juncos next weekend. I have seen a few in town already, but none yet in our own yard.

I can tell that my fascination with goldfinches and their striking plumage is going to continue.

Here we got a nice look at their white patches above the tail, not feathers you see terribly often

And the nuthatches will continue with their bold antics, running each other off from the feeders. I hope to catch some good shots of them with their various displays of aggression, but they are fast and hard to keep up with the camera. Unless they're eating, that is.

One new bird that I hope to draw in this year is the Brown Creeper. They are definitely in our woods, but they're not exactly a bird that takes to traditional bird feeders. I'm going to try some homemade "bark butter" to see if that will bring them in.

And, it will be time to start making homemade bird dough soon, once the temps actually decide to get cold (as I write this at 8:30 in the evening, it's still 69 degrees outside... I'm not complaining, but it is a bit odd for mid-November!). Will my Pileated Woodpecker come back again this year for a sample of that tasty treat? I surely hope so!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Chickadee love

I've been going through some photos in preparation for an upcoming post, and just couldn't wait any longer to share these 2 photos of a Carolina Chickadee at our feeders. It's a gorgeous, tough little bird, and I can't quite get over how handsome it is. While they won't eat from my hand (yet!), our chickadees are pretty fearless when I'm outside, and I was only about 3 feet away while taking these pictures.

More to come!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A special owl on a special day

Remember a few posts back when I showed you a cute, tiny owl? I said I could have taken it home in my pocket, and estimated that it was smaller in size than my head.

A captive Northern Saw-whet Owl who is part of the educational display for the Back to the Wild wildlife rehabilitation center.

This past Friday, I finally got a chance to meet one of these little cuties up close. But let's back up a little bit.

I had never even heard of Saw-whet Owls until last spring. It was at the ODNR's annual Wildlife Diversity conference that I heard a presentation about Saw-whet Owls given by Kelly Williams-Sieg, an Ohio University grad student and licensed bird bander. The presentation detailed her work with Project Owlnet and how she's been banding and researching Saw-whets (and other birds) since 2004 at Earl H. Barnhart Buzzards Roost Nature Preserve in Chillicothe, Ohio. As her presentation wrapped up, I jotted down some notes and thought, "Wow, wouldn't it be cool to attend one of these banding sessions?" I left it at that, thinking it a purely whimsical notion at the time. Fast forward 6 months or so to an event at Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area, where Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalists met for a weekend of pure nature bliss, full of learning about and looking at birds, butterflies, flowers and beetles. It was here that I met Bob Scott Placer, a licensed bird bander, who also happens to live practically down the street from me. Bob has been helping Kelly band owls at Buzzards Roost from day one. After some discussions with Bob, I went out to Buzzards Roost once last year to check out the banding operation, but we struck out. It was early December, and they hadn't seen any Saw-whets for a week or so. Bob advised that we come in early November the next year for better luck.

And so we did just that. There was no pressure to see an owl or anything. It just so happened to be my birthday on the day that I chose for our owling adventure.

A group of folks from the Scioto Valley Bird and Nature Club was already there by the time we arrived around 8:15 pm. Kelly, Bob and Lisa, our banders for the evening, made several checks of the mist nets between 8:30 and 10:15, each time coming up empty-handed. By 10:30 all the bird club folks had headed home, so Dave and I were the only onlookers left. Around 10:45 the nets were checked, and still there was nothing. Bob said that during previous banding sessions so far this season the owls had been showing up pretty late, so we all hung in there for one more net check at 11:15. Lo and behold, Kelly checked a net and said she had an owl. I let out a small squeal of delight and rushed down to see for myself. Kelly deftly but gently untangled the owl from the net. It clacked its beak several times, a sound of warning. We heard plenty more of that as our time with the owl went on.

Kelly Williams-Sieg and Bob Scott Placier prepare to collect data from a Northern Saw-whet Owl.

Once the owl was freed from the mist netting, we brought it inside to band it and collect various data, such as wing and tail length, weight, and amount of fat observed.

Kelly blows the owl's feathers out of the way so she can look for fat deposits under its skin. This bird showed no fat deposits, which is typical of a bird that is in the middle of migration. Kelly also showed me how she feels along either side of the breast bone for fat, and let me feel for myself.

Kelly demonstrates how a Saw-whet bite doesn't hurt. That hooked beak looks intimidating, but that's mainly a tool for ripping the flesh of its prey. The real danger on this little predator is its talons, which Kelly experienced first-hand several times over the course of several minutes.

Normally docile and seemingly tame in the hand, this Saw-whet was an exception to the rule. She was feisty right from the start, complete with lots of bill snapping and much kicking and grabbing with those talons. Here Lisa gives the owl a momentary distraction of a pencil to hang on to while Kelly tries to reposition her for more data collection.

Taking the tail measurement. I think the owl has a most displeased expression here.

For those of you wondering how you weigh an owl (or any other small bird), this is how it's done. They go head-first into some kind of tube, which keeps them from wiggling around too much. This Saw-whet weighed in at 98.2 grams, which Kelly said was on the high side for this species. The weight, combined with tail and wing measurements suggests that this owl is a female (typically, female owls are larger than the males).

A black light is used to help age the bird. There is a certain pigment in the owls flight feathers that show up in varying degrees of pink, depending on its age. This photo doesn't do the test justice because the whole bird shows up as pink, which is not what we really saw. Based on the amount of pink we saw, and how bright the pink was, Kelly determined that this owl was born this year. That's called a hatch-year bird. So we had ourselves a fiesty, hatch-year female.

Now that we've got her vitals, let enjoy her cuteness, shall we?

Rock, paper, scissors, owl! Just kidding. Kelly's showing me how to hold my fingers as I prepare to get the best birthday present a birder could ask for...

... A loving gaze from a teeny, tiny owl. Say it with me everyone: Awwwwwwwwww.

Despite all the attitude and the feistyness, this little ball of fluff could not resist the power of a good head rub. I have read about this phenomenon from others, and she did indeed just keep pushing her head back farther and farther as I ran my finger down her head and back. She did show some signs of resistance though, as she simultaneously pushed into the head rub while snapping her bill half-heartedly. The theory behind what seems to be the owl's enjoyment of this action is that it reminds them of mutual grooming and preening that they do in the wild (especially mother with owlet).

One last pose with "my" owl before we took her outside to be released.

It took a few minutes for us to walk down to the spot where we released her, which gave her eyes time to adjust to the dark enough so that she could see to fly off to a nearby perch. Kelly placed her on my arm, and I had a feeling it wouldn't take her too long to fly off, given all the attitude she had given us while in our care. Sure enough, she took off within 5 seconds, wooshing over my head into a tree just behind me. Luckily I was able to turn around fast enough to see her outstretched wings back-lit against a sky brightened by a waning moon just before she landed.

All in all, I'd say that experience was a pretty cool birthday present. Thank you Kelly, Bob and Lisa. And thank you, little owl. I was very honored to meet you.

But wait, don't go away yet! Please be sure to check out THIS ARTICLE from the October 2008 issue of Ohio Magazine that goes into a little more detail about the Saw-whet banding project. And to see the banding process in action, watch THIS VIDEO by ODNR's Division of Wildlife.