Monday, March 26, 2012

Springtime beauty

Spring has sprung in my little corner of the world, and how! Reports from around the state confirm that most flowers and trees are at least 2 weeks ahead of schedule (in terms of bloom time) due to the ridiculously mild winter we've had and also the early warming trend we've seen so far this spring. Tonight we are under a freeze warning, though, so I'm not sure what our heavily flowered landscape will look like upon awakening in the morning.

Luckily I was able to get out on our property and some neighboring property over the weekend to get photos of just a few of the things that are in bloom. Enjoy!

Bluebells in my garden. This is the first year they have bloomed, even though I planted them 2 years ago.

Newly emerged Bluebell flower buds, kissed by a dew drop.

Bluets, a dainty but cheery flower.

How could you not be cheered by a flower that has a sunshine burst in the middle?

Bloodroot, which is normally just starting to bloom, is already starting to fade, with many plants already gone to fruit. This one is tattered and worn, but still beautiful.

When out looking at nature, you never know what you'll come across. Here, a pair of snail shells, the larger being about the size of a dime (if that), the tiny one being barely larger than a pin head. Always keep your eyes peeled for magical treasures!

Monday, March 12, 2012

When the Grackles descended

A few weekends ago I started to see Common Grackles in large numbers in a few spots in this corner of southeast Ohio. Around this time I also started to see Red-winged Blackbirds reliably. American Woodcocks have been doing their display flights since the beginning of February. With each passing day, the bird song becomes more melodic and beautiful, ushering in spring in such a magnificent way. And every few days, I come across a new sighting for the season - Eastern Phoebes and Wood Ducks are now seemingly everywhere, and I saw my first Field Sparrow of the season yesterday. Spring is on the wing!

Following is an account of one of my grackle encounters, which I posted to the Ohio-Birds listserv (one of several "virtual" online birding communities for Ohio birders). Enjoy!
Greetings, Ohio birders! This weekend has been a bit of a Grackle-fest for
me here in Athens County! It started when I was leaving work on Friday,
when a flock of approximately 50 birds landed in a couple of trees in a
residential neighborhood in Athens. I heard at least one Red-winged
Blackbird singing among the group, so I assume it was a mixed flock. That
was the first large gathering of Grackles that I had seen so far this year.

Turns out that was nothing compared to what I would experience yesterday and
today. A group of several hundred birds caught my attention yesterday
afternoon (Saturday) when I was out filling bird feeders at my home in rural
Athens County (Albany). I could hear a rustling noise off in the distance,
quite a ways across the road actually, and even though it was windy, I knew
there was no way it was leaves blowing in the breeze. After a few squeaky
gate sounds reached my ears, it dawned on me that there was a large pack of
Grackles in the neighborhood. They were too far away for me to get any good
views even with my binoculars, but I could make out movement well enough to
estimate that there were probably 100-200 birds in the flock.

This morning, a similar event happened on the hillside right next to our
property, and I was able to observe the birds much better. Again, it was
several hundred Grackles, probably about 300 of them, with at least a few
Red-winged Blackbirds mixed in, but I was never able to spot one of them - I
could only hear them. I'm guessing they were on the outer edges of the
group? I felt very lucky to have them so close and to be able observe them
so well. They spent a large amount of their time rooting through the leaf
litter, stirring up whatever insects they could find. The noise was quite
amazing: we all know what it sounds like when one person walks through the
woods in fall or spring, kicking up dried leaves as they go - well, imagine
that you and 50 friends are doing that all at the same time, and that's what
these Grackles sounded like. Every once in a while they would all take off
from the ground together, making a fantastic whooshing sound with their
collective wings, and then land mere feet away from where they had just
been, only to begin the whole rooting in the leaf litter process again.

They were, of course, calling and vocalizing to each other during all of
this, but it wasn't until they ascended into the trees that they became
really loud. They were on our property by this time, and as I looked
through the trees with my binoculars, I could see that many of them were
preening. So it seems they had a quick breakfast, and then were off to hit
the showers, so to speak, and making plans for the day. At least I imagine
that was what all the raucous conversation was about.

I uploaded a short video to YouTube that tries to communicate the din
surrounding me. Even though you can't see the birds (my iPod Touch doesn't
take great video), you can at least hear them pretty well.

Good birding!
Heather Aubke
Albany, OH

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Today I saw: American Kestrel

For a while I've been kicking around in my mind the idea of doing some serial-style posts that detail bird sightings and observations that I think you, my dear readers, might find interesting. Think of it as a "birders notebook" type of entry. I have shied away from the idea partly because there will invariably be birds that I do not have photos of from my own personal collection, meaning I will have to rely on online sources where I can get free images that are allowed to be used for public/educational distribution. Why? Because no one wants to read a post where there are NO pictures, but I will not just "lift" photos willy-nilly from web pages just to get images for a blog post. So we'll see how this goes. This will be my first installment of "Today I saw..."

Kestrel image provided by Clipart ETC, originally published in 1869 in Louis Figuier's Reptiles and Birds.

Today I saw an American Kestrel. It was perched on a phone wire along a mildly traveled county road, looking out into a corn field, prime habitat for this falcon. At first glance I wasn't sure that it was a kestrel because it was not doing its characteristic tail bobbing, a behavior that is a "gimme" for quick field identification. Luckily, there was a spot just up the road where I could safely pull off, and I was able to hop out with my binoculars and work my way toward the bird. Not having had a ton of experience with kestrels, I wanted to get a better look at it, just to be sure about the ID. My curiosity was well-rewarded.

As I approached I noticed another bird on the wire, which was a Rock Pigeon, and the still-in-question kestrel was quite a bit smaller than the pigeon. American Kestrels (also known as "Sparrow Hawks") are the smallest falcon in North America, so it was good to see this size comparison in person. For reference, Rock Pigeons are about 12"-14" long, whereas American Kestrels are about 9"-12" long. As far as field marks go, the lighting was not great, so it was a bit difficult to see any field marks well, but I was able to pick up barring in the wings and some vertical striping on the head, so I was pretty confident by this time that I was looking at a kestrel, even though it never bobbed its tail once while I saw it on that wire.

A cold, biting breeze was blowing, so it was time to head back to the car. Just a few feet from my car I took another look out into the field, and saw a dove-like figure flying over the field, except it wasn't behaving in a dove-like fashion. This bird was obviously hunting, so I knew I was seeing the kestrel. I quickly forgot about the chilly breeze and enjoyed the show this small raptor was putting on. It was hovering with shallow but fluid wing beats, and at times it was able to catch the breeze just right and simply hang in the air for 5 seconds at a time. When not hovering, it would fly in a roughly circular pattern over the area it was hunting, and I was finally able to pick up the rusty coloring of its back and tail. Such a slim, graceful bird it was. It dove to the ground twice, but both times it come up empty-taloned. Here's an interesting factoid that I gleaned from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds site:
Unlike humans, birds can see ultraviolet light. This enables kestrels to make out the trails of urine that voles, a common prey mammal, leave as they run along the ground. Like neon diner signs, these bright paths may highlight the way to a meal—as has been observed in the Eurasian Kestrel, a close relative.
It then took off to another portion of the field, and maybe eventually made its way back to the perch on the phone wire where I had originally spotted it. I was glad I took the time to stop and watch this bird. The observations gave me a good field experience that adds to my growing mental library of bird behavior, and gave me a good opportunity to share this bird with you.