Sunday, February 26, 2012

A certain stillness

Last weekend was the Great Backyard Bird Count, which normally has me planning to go to different locations to count birds. That was indeed my original plan, but life had other ideas. Last Saturday morning I awoke to a sick dog, and unfortunately he did not get better as the day progressed. A time that we had been anticipating and dreading had finally come. It's hard to believe that it's been a week since we had our poor, sweet Emmett put to sleep.

Our house is now feeling a bit empty. Emmett was the last of a host of pets that Dave and I have had the pleasure of knowing over the last 11 years. At 15-1/2, he was the oldest of them all. His sister, Jupiter, passed away a little over 2 years ago, just shy of her 13th birthday.

Amid all the bird songs that I hear daily now that are a sure promise of spring, a certain stillness hangs in the air. It's hard to adjust to not having a wagging tail and happy puppy to greet us when we get home from work. But instead of focusing on the things that are difficult, let me share some happier memories with you, memories of both Emmett and Jupiter.

I didn't know them as puppies, unfortunately - they were already full-grown by the time Dave and I started dating. I met them both the first time I came to Dave's place, and they were both very accepting of me, which was something that I felt was important if Dave and I were going to be a couple. I was especially grateful that Jupiter, the "other" girl in his life, took a liking to me.

They were both very cute adults, but as puppies... well, it was just ridiculous.

Emmett was quite a little ball of fluff. It took him a little while to grow into his face and his ears, though.

Emmett in his "adolescence."

And Jupiter in hers.

They loved to chase each other and play. I can't tell who's chasing who here, but I can hear them going "nyyeeeaaawwwwwrrr," round and round in circles!

They also liked to bite on each other, especially Jupiter on Emmett. This is when they were wee pups...

... and as adults. It's a move Jupiter would repeat over...

... and over. Eventually, many years into adulthood, Emmett finally developed a strategy to shake her off when she chomped on him like this, and it was a move that I called the "butt block." Actually, it was more of a hip block, where he'd ram his hip into her to get her off of him, but "butt block" sounds way more fun.

This isn't to say that he didn't get his own chomps in on her, though!

Their exact lineage is unknown, but "husky mix" was the breed reference we always gave. Having husky blood meant they liked to roam, often quite far from home. They always came back, but Dave and Jupiter one day learned the hard way that some folks don't take kindly to having strange dogs on their property. Jupiter got shot in her rear left leg, and fragments of the bullet stayed with her until the end. Living on 8 acres in the country made containing the dogs a challenge, to say the least. A radio fence was employed after the shooting incident, but both Emmett and Jupiter were masters at finding ways to get through the field of the fence, and they were always testing it, waiting for those times when a rodent chew or a deer run-through caused a break in the line, leaving the whole system down.

The day Dave asked me to marry him, the dogs "broke out" and came over into the field where we were (across the road from the house) to congratulate us. They didn't want to be left out! This was one time that we didn't mind that they were naughty dogs who disobeyed the rules.

Overall, they were good dogs. For as long as I knew them, they were outside dogs 90% of the time (with plenty of shelter available when they needed it, of course), and they seemed very content being that way.
They both loved the snow...

... and they both loved a good leaf pile.

And we loved them both very, very much. Two weeks before Emmett reached his end, I was able to get some nice photos of him. When I look at this photo now, it still tugs at my heart strings, but it also makes me smile. It captures his essence very well.

We miss you, dear friend. Rest in peace.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Oh, how I love my birds

In my last post, I mentioned how Carolina Wrens are the apple of my eye as far as species that dine at my feeders in winter go(or any time of year, really). If a weekend of counting for Project FeederWatch goes by with a goose egg on my list next to "CAWR"* (the 4-letter shorthand, known as bander's code or alpha code, for CArolina WRen), it makes me sad. I worry.

This weekend I was sitting at the dining room table having a late breakfast, and I wondered out loud if "my" wrens were okay, because I had not yet heard a peep from them or seen them. Oftentimes they are one of the first birds I hear in the morning, so that was why I was a little concerned. Not to worry, though. As soon I finished posing the question to my bowl of cereal, up popped a wren onto the railing and right into the bowl that holds the bird dough.

It's when things like this happen that I can't help but wonder if there is some kind of connection between myself and the birds. I mean, come on! Wonder about the bird and then it shows up immediately thereafter, as if conjured?!

Don't worry, Heather - we are here and we are fine. Now, if you don't mind, I'm just going to sit in the food.

There were actually 2 of them sitting in here at one point, but I wasn't fast enough with the camera to get a shot of that. In total, there were 3 Carolina Wrens at my feeders at one time this weekend, as was the case last weekend. I had 3 of them at one time in early December, too. This is remarkable because this is the first year in 7 years of counting for FeederWatch that I've ever seen 3 Carolina Wrens at once at my feeders.

Contemplating his/her next bite?

I also enjoy the woodpeckers, and we get three species of them reliably: Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied. The Downies seem to be the most tame of the three, readily coming in to the suet feeders even if I'm standing right next to them. This sweet little female Downy Woodpecker looks like she just landed, what with the little spray of snow under her tail.

Tra-la-la, minding her own business, making sure I'm getting her good side...

... then this feisty fella shows up. Doesn't he look MAD?! His little head feathers are all puffed up, full of 'tude.

Here's a look at his puffed up mane from the back:

And even though he's chased the female away by now, his bravado continues:

Oh wait, never mind. It's all cool. No problems here, lady.

Lemme jus' grab a big ol' hunk o' dough...

And get on outta here!

I soooo love this shot, caught serendipitously by depressing the shutter at just the right time, of course. It almost has the feel of a raptor caught in flight rather than a woodpecker.

Yes, friends, these are just a few examples of why I love my birds. They are wonderful in every way.

*Okay, regarding the alpha code for Carolina Wren... CAWR isn't technically correct, because that abbreviation could also refer to 2 other wren species in the United States: CActus WRen and CAnyon WRen. The correct bander's code for each of these species is as follows: CACW (Cactus Wren), CARW (Carolina), and CANW (Canyon). I use CAWR for my wren, though, because the chances of me encountering either of the other 2 species, which live out west, is pretty remote at my feeders. Besides, it's shorthand that's supposed to be easy for ME to read. But I digress.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Vultures, creepers and wrens - oh my!

So what was I talking about when last I blogged... Birds, you say? Well, here's some more bird stuff.

Vultures are common where I live in southeast Ohio, and they are here year-round. This has not always been the case, but it's all I've ever known since I started birding and paying attention to such things. Folks up in northern portions of the state are starting to see their first Turkey Vultures of the year, but Turkey Vultures, as well as Black Vultures, abound in Athens and Hocking Counties (and probably many other southeast Ohio counties). My interest in Black Vultures in Athens County began around this same time last year when a large group set up camp on and around an empty house along my route to work (click HERE to read that post). This year they continue to fascinate me as I try to figure out where they are roosting around town.

One reliable spot, I have found, is The Ridges on the Ohio University Campus. This area used to be known as the Athens Lunatic Asylum, but now it houses university offices, the campus recycling center, and an art museum, among other things.

One Black Vulture among many, coming in for a landing. Notice the bits of whitewash along the brick wall. Yeah, that's vulture poo.

The Black Vultures that I've been seeing during the past few months have been flying rather close to downtown Athens, and I see them often on the days that I choose to walk Uptown (that's what we call downtown in Athens) for lunch. They swirl around down low, and they are sometimes found flying close to the local middle school, which is a little creepy (don't fly off with one of the kids!)
As I've been studying the vultures these past months, I've been tricked by several different shapes they can take in flight. We mostly think of them soaring, which they certainly do, but I've learned that they look very different when they are actively flying and really trying to cover some ground to get from point A to point B. So just because its wings aren't outstretched doesn't mean it's not a vulture.

Turkey Vulture in a hurry

I've also had to really concentrate on field marks to separate the Black Vulture from the Turkey Vultures in flight. The tail should be a reliable clue (short and stubby on Black Vultures, longer and more round on Turkey Vultures), but sometimes it's not the best indicator for me. The white "finger tips" are probably the best marking to look for, but the light has to hit at just the right angle for that to really show. I'm also getting a better feel for the relative sizes (Black Vultures are smaller then Turkey Vultures.)

One of each. Can you tell which is which?

In case you thought I only cared about the Black Vultures, here's a small roost of Turkey Vultures, also found at The Ridges, but quite removed from the spot where I photographed the Black Vultures. Normally they don't make any noise, but sometimes they do hiss, as the top-most Turkey Vulture in this photo is doing.

Another bird that's been high on my fascination-meter this winter is the Brown Creeper. I've seen more Brown Creepers this winter than I ever have, and have spotted them on at least 15 different occasions. While I don't get the impression that they are terribly uncommon, they certainly aren't as abundant as, say, woodpeckers or chickadees. They put me more in the mind of Carolina Wrens, who seem to have a fairly high territory:bird ratio (meaning few birds to a large-ish territory). One thing is for sure: a Brown Creeper is not a bird that you're going to just stumble upon. You've got to know what to look for, and more times than not it will be their sibilant call note that will alert you to their presence.

For example, there are 2 birds on this tree, a creeper and a woodpecker. The woodpecker is peeking, and I'm positive you can pick it out, but I bet you're in a pickle to point out the presence of the creeper.

Here we are, zoomed in. The cute little creeper is just below dead-center. See why they're so hard to spot? Blend right in with the bark. That's some camouflage, eh?

Please pardon the quality of this photo, but it is severely cropped. This was one of the few times when the creeper was at the base of the tree, and there's at least a little contrast with the moss that's around it. It's hard to see, but there's a band on this bird's leg. I photographed this Brown Creeper at the house of my friend Bob Scott Placier, who is a licensed bird bander. He has banded at least 4 of these little gems in recent months, and they have a steady supply of food at Bob's, so they'll probably stick around until it's time for them to migrate north for breeding season.

On the home front, the birding has been pretty steady this winter, with the same 14 species (give or take 1 or 2) showing up reliably each weekend that I count birds for Project FeederWatch. We had an ice storm a few weeks back, which finally brought a pair of Eastern Towhees and an American Tree Sparrow to my feeders, but otherwise it's been a predictable cast of characters.

Singing male Carolina Wren, the apple of my eye at the feeders. Any time I put something special out, like mealworms or homemade bird dough, I tell them out loud that I've put out something just for them. It's for all of the birds to enjoy, of course, but a special kind of joy comes over me when the wrens show up.

I love watching the woodpeckers at this little feeding station - the distance from the railing is perfect for tail-propping.

And no feeder watching session would be complete without a visit from at least one Sciurus carolinensis, or eastern grey squirrel.

Good birding!