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!