Sunday, June 26, 2011

New birding experiences

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm currently busying myself with spending as much time in the field as I can to collect data for my two blocks of Ohio's 2nd Breeding Bird Atlas. What a wild ride it's been! Taking part in this survey effort has driven home to me the fact that there's so much to be seen out there, if only we take (and make) the time to look for it.

One of the blocks that I have claimed for the atlas is very convenient for me. My property and a good portion of my road are within the block, so I already had a lot of data to report about species just from my own back yard and neighborhood. That being said, however, I have been happily surprised to uncover breeding evidence (mostly in the form of fledged birds begging for food from their parents) for a good number of species in my neighborhood (and on my property) just within the last 10-12 days. A partial list of these species includes Eastern Towhee, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Blue-winged Warbler, Ovenbird (that one was 20 feet from my front door - just outrageous!), Wood Thrush, and this little bird:

Please forgive the picture quality - the camera on my iPod is not very good. But look how cute! I found 2 of these little buggers peeping at me from a ditch at the side of the road one evening. I was positively stumped as to what the species might be, though, and there was no parental unit around to tend to it at the time that I spotted it, nor when I checked in on it again the next morning. Seeing mom or dad feeding it sure would have helped me figure out what it was! After some online searches and consultation with a friend, the verdict is: Red-eyed Vireo fledgling. It was literally within seconds of finding this little one that a young Wood Thrush and one of its parents flew across the road and landed in a tree, giving me two breeding confirmations in less than a minute. SUCCESS!

It's funny what a difference a year can make. Last spring I considered joining the atlas effort, and even met with our regional director to learn more about it, but between being committed to classes for OCVN and general lack of knowledge, I just didn't feel comfortable trying to participate last year. Having made it a point to better educate myself about bird ID both by sight and by sound since last spring, I feel pretty good about what I can contribute to the atlas now. I will admit that I was still a little hesitant about the whole thing when I signed up, though. I thought to myself a number of times "how am I going to find breeding evidence for all these birds?" - and I still wonder that each time I go out, despite having had a number of successful outings. But the answer is much easier than I would have imagined. Just let nature show you, and it becomes simple. Allow your instincts to guide you. Watch the birds and really pay attention to their behavioral cues - they will tell you exactly what is going on in no uncertain terms.

Sometimes it's a matter of watching a bird sally back and forth over a field and then return to a spot over and over. I found an Eastern Kingbird nest this way. Sometimes it's a hunch of "maybe I should walk over this way," which gets rewarded with a scolding from a bird, which leads you to find its nest in a tree. That was how I found this Orchard Oriole nest.

Roughly 8 feet off the ground in a very young sycamore tree, I was delighted to have this nest within easy reach of my camera lens (the few oriole nests I've seen before this have been located 20+ feet up in very huge sycamores, sometimes hard to spot even with binoculars). The Cornell Lab's All About Birds website describes the Orchard Oriole's nest as "An open cup of woven grass, lined with fine grass, plant down, wool, and feathers, suspended from fork of tree branch far out on limb."

Given the small size of this sycamore, there weren't very many limbs to go far out on, so she chose instead to stick this pretty much next to the main trunk. What I love about this angle is that you can see all those strands of grass coming down from the top which help to actually suspend the nest (although it seems to be getting support from branches underneath it, too).

Male and female Orchard Oriole, left to right.

This male Orchard Oriole is one that can present an identification challenge for birders who are still learning IDs, myself included! Had this not been pointed out to me in West Virginia a few months ago, I would have been stumped for sure. Adult male Orchard's are normally a deep brick red color, but this fella is just a youngun. He's a first year male (meaning he was born last year), and he's also referred to as a "bearded" male due to the black coloring along his throat. Next year he will molt into his brick red plumage, his wings and tail will go black, and his entire head will be black, not just his throat. It will be interesting to see if an Orchard Oriole pair comes back to this same site next year. If I see a brick-colored male there next year, I can make an educated guess that it's this guy.

Here's the female. She's the first one of the pair who caught my attention by making scolding calls at me and thus giving away her nest. She can be differentiated from a Baltimore Oriole female by her yellow-olive coloring - lady Baltimores have a definitive orange cast to them. In this image I think her resemblance to some of her other Icterid cousins is very obvious, especially that long, pointy beak. I should mention, though, that the Orchard Oriole's size is diminutive compared to a Baltimore Oriole. I didn't notice this until they took flight, and had a seen them only in flight, I might have actually mistaken them for some type of warbler.
"Icterid" is the taxonomic classification for the blackbird family, which includes grackles, cowbirds, meadowlarks, blackbirds (think Red-winged and Yellow-headed), orioles and the bobolink. Interestingly, the orioles are the only birds in this family who seem to have a form of the word "icterid" in their latin name. Orchard Orioles are Icterus spurius, while Baltimore Orioles are Icterus galbula. The word icterus means "jaundiced" or "yellowed" in Latin, very appropriate for a lot of birds who are boldly colored in yellow and orange!

I would say that the drab yellow coloring of this female helps to keep her out of sight under the right circumstances. Here you can see how she easily blends in with the leaves around her.

It's camouflage like this that was part of my concern about being able to spot nests and birds when I signed on for doing the atlasing. But as I said, the birds really do tell you all you need to know. It does take patience and open eyes, but it is amazing what you can see when you really LOOK! I never imagined myself as being one of those birders who drives around slowly and stops frequently to hop out of the car to look around or get a better listen. And yet, here I am - surveying birds and learning, learning, learning all along the way. I wonder what people think when they drive past this "crazy lady" with her binoculars? Most of them slow down, smile and wave, but a few drive by at break-neck speed with little regard for the pedestrian at the side of the road. It is those folks who I most want to tell, to shout at the top of my lungs, "There's newly fledged birds right over there, begging to be fed! They are so cute, and so amazing! They will migrate hundreds, maybe thousands of miles to South America in a matter of months! Isn't that incredible?!" Mostly, I just want them to slow down and take time to smell the roses - and look at the birds.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Serious birding business

Coming into this year, I already knew that 2011 would be a big birding year for me. It started off with a bang when I participated in my first-ever Christmas Bird Count up in the Hocking Hills on January 2nd. Then I had a number of speaking engagements where I talked about birds and birding. Then, of course, there was the New River Birding and Nature Festival in West Virginia during the first week of May. That event, in and of itself, served to catapult my birding knowledge and confidence into a dimension previously unknown to me.

The confidence I gained led me to finally offer my time and effort to a cause that is in need of my help (and yours, too, if you're an Ohio birder!). A little over a week ago I signed up to take part in Ohio's 2nd Breeding Bird Atlas. The first atlas was completed 20+ years ago, and it is strictly a volunteer effort. It's citizen science at its finest, in my opinion, and every bit of input helps. Here is a brief synopsis of the atlas, as stated on the OBBA II website:
The second breeding bird atlas for Ohio is generating extensive information that will be essential for the effective conservation and management of birds. By engaging Ohio's citizens in this cooperative effort OBBA II will foster interaction among bird enthusiasts of all experience levels and will heighten public awareness of birds in Ohio.
The atlas works somewhat like a Christmas Bird Count in that volunteers are counting birds within a pre-defined area (a "block" that is approximately 10 miles square), but information is tallied from the entire state over a period of 5-6 years. Also, it's not simply a matter of counting birds, but looking for specific cues that breeding is occurring or has occurred. With a little over 4,400 blocks to be surveyed across the entire state, even just a few hours of surveying can help out with this monumental undertaking. Unfortunately (and understandably), there are still a number of blocks throughout the state that have not been surveyed, and have no data. The two blocks that I recently claimed ownership of had some small numbers up until now, but I am working to quickly change that.

By claiming ownership of a block, I have committed myself to spending 25 hours (per block) of time out in the field looking for breeding evidence, as well as documenting 75% of the expected total species for each block (and confirming breeding for as many of those species as possible). Sounds like a lot of work, and I will admit that it's a bit daunting, but I've been very encouraged by each trip afield so far. I feel like I still have a good bit of ground to cover, but each time I've gone out I've either added a handful (or two!) of new species to the block, or upgraded previous observations from a "possible" or "probable" status to "confirmed." Granted, the more time I spend out there, the less new data I will have to report, but for now I'm riding high on all the wonderful new things I'm seeing.

Even if you've never done any surveying for breeding birds like this before, there's still time if you're interested. June and July is prime time, and there's lots of activity out there right now. Any of my Ohio readers, if you're not already involved but would like to be, please go to the OBBA II website by clicking HERE. You'll find all the information you need to get started. Not an Ohio resident? Other neighboring states are doing breeding bird atlases as well, and West Virginia is in the middle of their 2nd atlas project. Click HERE for links to BBA projects in other states (and Canada).

In my next post I'll detail some of the wonderful things I have had the opportunity to observe just within the last 10 days as a result of being part of this effort.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Plant oddity

Dear friends, I have so many posts cooking in my brain right now that it's really not funny. A floral oddity caught my attention yesterday, though, and it begs immediate sharing with you, my curious readers.

There is a large population of Wingstem (Actinomeris alterniflora) plants in the woods across the road from my house. They won't be in bloom for another couple of months, but they are easily identified by their stem which looks to be, well, winged - thus the common name. I'll show you the stem shortly. But first you have to look at the leaves!

What the heck? An albino plant? Is that even possible? Apparently it is, but I had no idea - until now.

Yup, it's pretty much just white...

... except where it's green. Note the white ridges along the sides of the stem. Those are the "wings" that give the plant its common name. Normally, of course, those wings would be green, along with the rest of the plant. I am perplexed about the fact that the central portion of the stem is still green. All of the green leaves in the background belong to other, non-albino, Wingstems.

Not only is the center of the stem still green, but parts of some of the leaves are, too. This was the largest patch of green that I found on this plant. Most bizarre.

Aside from the fact that the lack of chlorophyll will likely hinder much more growth from this plant (no chlorophyll means no nutrients for the plant), it seems that the plant is potentially structurally weak, as well. The leaves are paper-thin, with an almost transparent quality, and if you look carefully, you can see my fingers right through the leaf.

I love it when nature throws me curve balls like this. Always keeping me on my toes, and making me ask questions. I'll keep an eye on this one - I'll be interested to see if it makes it to the flowering stage. I predict that it won't, though. Never a dull moment out there!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Still life

I really think this wraps it up in terms of posts about my trip to West Virginia (I can't believe it's only been a month since we returned home - it seems like it was an eternity ago, somehow!). There are still some images I'd like to share though. I'll let them tell you the story of how lush and beautiful the hills of West Virginia are, and how magical they can be after it has just rained and everything is still dripping wet and bursting with life. Enjoy.

Fern getting ready to unfurl

Leaf of a Wild Ginger plant - perfect symmetry

The saddest-looking Squirrel Corn flower I've ever seen

That's a long way down for a snail...

Wild Geranium flower, in repose

An example of the diverse flora on one tiny swath of hillside

I kept my distance from here, thank you very much. A large arachnid lives within.

Fern Study, I

Fern Study, II

Almost in bloom...

... and in full flower

These images remind me of the cool, damp spring morning that it was when I took them, something that sounds positively delightful now that the weather is starting to heat up.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

My attention, divided

It was Friday, our next to last day at the New River Birding and Nature Festival. On one hand I was tired from a week so full of activity and learning, but on the other hand, I was not ready for this week to end. For one thing, I had spent very little time wandering the property of Opossum Creek Retreat. Nestled back in the woods, there was plenty to see just within a short walk from our cabin.

Our cabin at Opossum Creek. It felt just like home (except substitute oaks and maples for all the hemlocks).

Granted, I had poked my nose and my camera here and there, but there was still much more wooded bliss to be explored. One thing that both Nina and I wanted to check out was a small colony of Pennywort Gentian that was verified to be in flower by our buddy Jim McCormac. He gave us some rather cryptic directions as to where to find the colony on a hillside above the laundry facilities ("There's a downed log with a long stick propped up against it," he said. Sorry, Jim, but there were LOTS of downed logs with what appeared to be long sticks propped up against them!). Eventually, we found the little white beauties poking their heads out of the leaf litter. Nina and I spread out to each find our own little patch of flowers to work with (you can see Nina's Pennywort Gentian photos, along with a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher and a teeny, tiny spider HERE).

Pennywort Gentian, Obolaria virginica

Twin Gentians

I was supposed to be concentrating on the gentian, but I kept getting distracted by the delicate, fragile, skeletal remains of decomposing leaves.

This lacework is all that's left of a leaf in the process of breaking down, giving of itself back to the soil. Notice in the bottom of the photo a new Pennywort flower attempting to break through the leaf litter.

Same leaf, different angles

Even while the flowers bloom, the leaves vie for my attention.

Never have I seen the process of decomposition look so beautiful.

And so it goes, a quick walk in the woods to find one thing...

... quickly turns into a journey into a completely different world.

And so it goes.