Friday, January 1, 2010

Mr. and Mrs. Big Bird will attend with pleasure

Joining our party this week, but keeping pretty much to themselves, were Mr. and Mrs. Big Bird, our pileated woodpecker visitors. We've watched for them every winter for several years. Usually they show up in January, but this year they came at the beginning of December, rather early. (The photo on the right shows the female.)

A couple of weeks ago, I watched as the male landed on the walnut tree and helped himself to the suet. He ate for awhile, and then, just before taking off, called loudly 3 or 4 times. I waited, and, sure enough, the female came by and had her own breakfast. (I noticed that he waited to call her until he was full himself, but still, it was nice to see him looking out for her.) Pileateds mate for life, and they defend their territory together year-round. Often, they come to our feeders together or within a few minutes of each other. Below is the male, with the distinctive red "moustaches."

The other day I bought a 1958 children's book on birds called "Birds of the World: An Introduction to the Study of Birds" (Golden Library of Knowledge). I do a little collecting of nature writing of the past, and this is the first children's nature book I've bought.

It's interesting that the page on woodpeckers focuses on the Ivory-billed woodpecker, extinct even in 1958. And how do woodies do all that drumming without hurting themselves? The title of the page, "Hard Heads," is somewhat misleading, but the book correctly explains that "the bony structure of the woodpecker's shaped to resist the shock of the constant hammering."

As a child I was told that woodpeckers had very hard heads, but although it's true that woodpecker skulls are very strong, it's really the way the head is shaped and structured that explains why woodpeckers can drum without injury. In brief, the frontal bones extend out farther than in other birds; the muscles along the face are extra-large; and even the ribs, in some species, are constructed differently. That's as technical as I can get without hurting my own head. (See the Backhouse book, cited on the left side of the blog).

I don't remember learning much about birds as a child, but we had one or two nature books that I studied for hours. I think they had something to do with my love of birds -- including those wonderful woodies. I wonder how many birders of today were inspired by this little book of yesteryear?

Thursday, December 31, 2009

What a bird party!

Our backyard has been very busy since it snowed on Sunday. I'm reminded of one of my favorite children's books, Go Dog Go. Paraphrased for the occasion: "Juncos, mourning doves, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, sparrows, blue jays, woodpeckers, cardinals, house finches, wrens and goldfinches are all at a bird party. What a bird party!"

Above: L-R House finch, female cardinal, white-crowned sparrow

As the hostess of this bird party, I've taken care to make sure the refreshments are plentiful: white (or yellow) millet on the ground and the table for the juncos, finches and mourning doves; sunflower seed everywhere for everyone, thistle for the goldfinches. And don't forget the peanuts for the jays, cardinals, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches -- and for a couple of "bird impersonators" with bushy tails. We have suet for the woodpeckers, and they also like the peanut feeder.

Above: Tufted titmouse

I'm off work this week, and I've spent a lot of time standing at the kitchen window, or hanging out of it with the camera, enjoying the party from a distance. Sometimes the birds jostle each other for position, but everybody gets fed eventually. We have a little dish (actually a flower pot saucer) hanging under the eaves. When little birds get bumped aside by the big birds, they often take refuge at the tiny dish, where they can eat in peace.

It's been a fun party, even though I have to enjoy it from a distance for fear of frightening my guests!

"What a hat! I like it! I like that party hat!"

Monday, December 28, 2009

Midnight visitor

The canoe has been hung in the garage for the winter, snow is on the ground, and I'm thinking back to the warmer days of fall, when we had a mysterious visitor every night. Each morning we would find the birds' table feeder overturned, and sometimes see little footprints in the mud, if it had rained. We suspected raccoons, until one night, while letting our dog Ari back in after an "out," my mate4life spotted the culprint: a skunk.

At first we were alarmed: what if he sprayed our dog? But after awhile it became clear that Ari, who is elderly and has cataracts, was mostly unaware of the skunk, or at least uninterested. The skunk and Ari came face to face once or twice and neither seemed fazed by the encounter. We became somewhat attached to the skunk and Dan named him Flower, after the skunk in Bambi. We didn't worry about the raids on the birdseed.

But I was not satisfied. I wanted a picture. I waited for my chance, and one night, went out into the yard, walked right up to him and took his picture -- with a flash. I turned around -- and discovered my brave husband and son cowering behind the kitchen door! "I can't believe you did that!" was the reaction I got.

But you know, I was never really worried about being sprayed. Skunks don't spray if they can avoid it, and they give plenty of warning ahead of time, allowing the intruder time to back off. When they are preparing to spray, they raise their tail stiffly, arch their backs, and stomp their front feet. Flower's tail was down and he was very busy eating sunflower seeds, so I knew that I was not alarming him.

Flower has a very wide white stripe, but is not an albino. The width of the white stripe can vary quite a bit. Skunks are carriers of rabies, and so actual contact with them is not advisable. But they have a short, often brutal life. Few of them live beyond the age of 3, and humans (cars, guns, poison) cause about half of all skunk deaths.

We haven't seen Flower in awhile. Skunks are not true hibernators, but do go into a more or less dormant state, or state of torpor, during cold weather. They bundle up together inside a den, rarely eating in the winter.We hope he (or she) is bedded down safely somewhere, and will come back to visit us in the spring. In the meantime, I am thinking of Robert Lowell's "Skunk Hour."

"I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air--
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare."

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Young Eagle

We had an unexpected bonus day on the lake last week. Thinking that we had seen the last of the warm weather for awhile, we spent a "last canoe day" at the end of October, took lots of pictures, said our sad goodbyes, and prepared to put away the canoe for the winter. But the warm weather persisted, and when the day is sunny and 60 degrees or so, how can we NOT canoe?

We went to the Cutright area of the lake, and had it almost to ourselves, sharing it only with a couple of fishing folk, and, startlingly, 2 orange-clad hunters up in the trees. We headed out to the middle of the water, feeling a little safer out there. And then we spotted a very large bird up in a tree on the farther shore -- not a turkey vulture, because the length and the posture were wrong. We headed over there at an angle, so that we were not paddling straight toward the bird, trying to "fly casual," as Han Solo said. Soon we were almost underneath it, and there was no doubt that we were looking at an eagle.

We see bald eagles sometimes at Lake Monroe, usually soaring overhead, occasionally perched in trees. After a century-long absence, bald eagles were reintroduced to Indiana beginning in 1985. In 1988 the first nest was found at Lake Monroe, although the first chick was apparently not successfully raised until 1991. Today, bald eagles are thriving in the area, and they are not difficult to see if you know what to look for. Golden eagles, migrants from Canada, have also been seen in the winter. Golden eagles nest in the Western states, so they're only occasional visitors here.

We don't usually get such an up-close view of bald eagles, so we were thrilled when this one stayed put for a long time, ignoring us as we floated by the shore below. This one is a juvenile; feathers are mostly brown, with splotches of white here and there. When it is mature, about 4 years old, it will acquire the white head and tail that everyone knows so well. We studied pictures of juvenile golden eagles and bald eagles, and to our inexperienced eyes, they looked very similar. We concluded, though, that this is a bald eagle. A golden eagle has been seen at Lake Monroe recently, but in a different area,

Eventually, the eagle flew farther along the shore, scaring up a great blue heron. The light faded and we headed back home, leaving the birds to the solitude of the quiet night. It was a good day, and an unexpected pleasure to see such a beautiful bird.

Information about eagles at Lake Monroe is from the website of the "Eagle Watch Weekend." This annual event is scheduled for Feb. 5-7, 2010, and will be a great chance to learn about eagles. We're hoping to go this year, and I'll post some pictures. Can't wait!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Visit With the Murrays

The more time we spend watching osprey nests in the Thousand Islands (see previous posts), the more impatient we are to see more of these birds, and to see them up close. We were pretty much as close as we could get, oggling them from our canoe, bobbing in the middle of the river, until we brought our telescope into the picture. The telescope was an inspired anniversary present a few years ago from my mate4life. It's difficult to aim, and it's most useful when you have a stationary target, like the moon, a favorite perch -- or an osprey nest. This summer, we hauled our scope all the way, by canoe, to a vantage point from which we could peer into an active nest, and the results were most gratifying.

Murray Island is a small, wooded island in the St. Lawrence River, separated from Wellesley Island by a narrow channel. On the top of a telephone pole along the shore of this channel is an osprey nest that has been occupied each breeding season for several years. Although Murray Island is, like most of these islands, covered by privately-owned vacation homes, Wellesley is home to a huge state park. On the Wellesley side of the channel there is a high, open, rocky cliff, from which you can see for miles in every direction. You can look down into the channel, or down the river, or across the channel to the nest.

So, feeling very adventurous, we got up at dawn, packed the car with our gear and drove to Wellesley State Park. Launching from the point nearest the parking lot, we paddled around the island to the channel. To protect the camera equipment, we had the waterproof Pelican case, -- except that this protection was mostly hypothetical. In reality, I kept seeing birds to photograph (herons, terns, warblers, sandpipers, a scarlet tanager, etc. etc), so it rested in a towel on my lap, not at all secure. The telescope was in its very-non-waterproof case, wrapped in a plastic tarp. That was the best we could do. (We pointedly refrained from imagining our losses, should the canoe capsize.)

We pulled the canoe out of the water and dragged everything up the rock to the overlook. We set it all up, focused on the nest, and -- omigosh! -- there was the nest, and one chick all alone, but so huge, and so close, that I felt I could reach out and touch the downy feathers. It was amazing, and we stayed as long as we could, and returned twice more during the week. In the photo at left, you can see the speckled chick on the far right, while the parents look down the channel to the left.

The nest was unusual in that there was just one chick. The average is three, and most of the nests we watch have three chicks. Not only that, but it seemed to us (amateurs though we are) that this chick was somewhat behind schedule. Chicks are usually flying short distances around the nest by July, and they must be ready to take off on their own by the end of August, when migration begins. But our Baby Murray simply hunkered down in the nest all day. Finally, on our third visit, we saw him "fly" from one side of the nest to the other.

We heard from the nature center staff that a lightning strike burned the nest a couple of years ago. There was concern about the birds, but it seemed that they were old enough to fly to safety, and the parents began rebuilding the very next day. I don't know why the nest had just one chick this year, or whether Baby Murray is going to make it through the winter. We hope so. Whatever happens, we'll be back next year to see the next installment of "At Home With the Murrays!"

Monday, September 7, 2009

Family 214

Near Clayton, New York, in the middle of one of the busiest sections of the St. Lawrence River, where the freighters lumber past and the speedboats roar by, on a nesting platform at the top of a channel marker, is an osprey family. Seeming oblivious to the noise and frenetic activity of all those humans in the area, this couple returns, year after year, to the same nest, where they raise 2 or 3 nestlings.

Osprey nearly died out in the 1960s. DDT in the food chain made its way to the fish they are dependent on, and it leached calcium from their bones, making their eggs weak and liable to crack. When DDT was banned in 1972, their outlook improved, but it took an extensive program of building nesting platforms throughout the breeding area before they really came back. Now, you can see them everywhere, their distinctive M-shape soaring majestically through the sky as they hunt for fish, or perched on trees and utility poles. They like to nest on those poles, which can be dangerous -- another good reason for the nesting platforms.

We visit Family 214 every year. We don't get to see them in May, when the chicks are young and helpless. In July, they're pretty big, almost as big as the adults, but they still have the speckled back that marks them as juveniles. They can usually fly short distances by then, but it takes a long time before they are proficient hunters, and both the female and the nestlings rely on dad for food throughout the nesting season. By the first of September, they are starting to migrate south, following rivers or the Atlantic coast so they can hunt for fish along the way.

Family 214 raised 3 chicks this year (3 is the average for all osprey nests). When we visit them, we canoe out to the channel marker and "park," as well as we can in a canoe, nearby. If we get too close, the female, standing guard, will fly out and circle around us, just to remind us that this is her territory. We try to stay back and not alarm them. Photographing them in a bobbing canoe is a real challenge, and I have taken hundreds of blurry, tilted photos! The thrill of seeing these magnificent birds and watching their progress keeps us coming back for more. I can't wait 'til next year!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The River

Every summer, we spend a week in the Thousand Islands, in the St. Lawrence River. I'm always surprised by how many people back in the Midwest have only a vague idea where that is. The St. Lawrence is the 4th longest river in the United States. Stretching 750 miles from Lake Ontario to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the river marks the boundary between the U.S. and Canada along the northern edge of New York, then continues through Montreal and Quebec. The width of the river varies from 2.5 miles at Lake Ontario to 80 miles at its mouth.

Near Lake Ontario, the river is relatively calm and slow, and dotted with islands ranging in size from -- well, without getting picky about the math, let's say from teeny-tiny to pretty darn big. Some are large enough for just one tree, and some are privately owned. Wellesley Island is one of our favorites, since it has a large, wooded state park with a nature preserve and trails.

My mate4life grew up spending summers on Grindstone Island, and we spent our honeymoon in his family's cabin there. The cabin is gone now, but for 2 weeks each summer, we stay in the home his father built on the mainland, a short drive from the river.

These days, when we go, we spend a lot of time in our canoe, on the river or in one of its small, winding creeks. We watch the ospreys catch fish and take long walks in the meadow, looking at wildflowers, butterflies and birds. The St. Lawrence valley is a beautiful place, and in the next couple of postings, I'll try to share a bit of that beauty as we have found it.