Category Archives: Birding

“Pernicious neither to corn, fruit tree, nor cattle..”.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine clued me into a news story coming out of Georgia; Vultures Invade Neighborhood.  I recommend you give it a read.  The link takes you to a story on Huffington Post.  The long and short of it being that 500+ vultures decided to plop down to roost in Lee County, Georgia and it’s appears to have irritated their human neighbors.  I always find it interesting how upset humans get when animals interrupt their life and activity.  At times you would think a pack of velociraptors had arrived from the way people act or maybe skesis from the Dark Crystal were real and had suddenly decided to organize.

My friend clued me into this story because I had waxed poetical to him a week earlier how the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians took great stock in the appearance of a vulture.  It had caused me to reevaluate my idea of the creature.  It all started in one of my classes last fall when I was curious as to why vultures were such a big deal to such people as, oh, Romulus and the founding of Rome.

Romulus and Remus, brothers in contention for the first seat of Rome, both saw vultures and took it as a positive sign.  I was immediately confused by this.  Why vultures?  It didn’t make sense to me.  If you’re going to tell a legend about the founding of a city of such import in the ancient world as Rome why go with vultures?  Why not eagles or at least a hawk?  I went looking and discovered a large chunk of information and how adoration of the vulture went all the way back to Egypt, Motherhood and the Goddess Mawt.  The big statement I found was from Plutarch.  He sums it up nicely.

“Hence it is that the Romans, in their divinations from birds, chiefly regard the vulture, though Herodorus Ponticus relates that Hercules was always very joyful when a vulture appeared to him upon any action.  For it is a creature that is least hurtful to any, pernicious neither to corn, fruit tree, nor cattle; it preys only on carrion, and never hurts or kills any living thing; and as for birds, it touches not them, though they are dead, as being it’s own species, whereas eagles, owls, and hawks mangle and kill their own fellow creatures…”

Since finding out about all of this I’ve looked at our local turkey vultures in an entirely different light. No wonder my friend wanted me to know when the vultures of Georgia decided to invade Lee County. It was good timing because, oddly enough, 24 hours later, there was a huge flock of vultures circling over my neighborhood in numbers well into the hundreds.

Watching them I realized they were not focused on one area but moving along the ridge, disappearing for a while behind the treeline and then gliding back and doing the same thing in the other direction. I watched them for close to an hour in groups that varied from ten to fifty. As occasional individuals would dip a wing, drop onto a tree branch, ruffle its feathers and settle, I realized they were actually roosting for the night. Driving on an errand the next morning I realized the roosting flock was stretched out over close to two miles of irregular residential woods and the occasional field. I estimated them to be in the several hundreds if not thousands.

I happened to notice a large number of big black clumps in the tops of trees near our neighborhood during the morning commute and upon returning home I took camera in hand to see what I could see. Several hundred had gathered on an eastern facing ridge line near a large open field. As the sun rose they were greeting it with wide open wings, warming them from the damp and chilly air. As the morning sun rose higher, they started to go on the move and they only tolerated my presence within about 100 yards.

Weeks later they are still in the area, moving from one ridge to the other, roosting in groups both large and small. More than one morning I’ve stepped out to see a lonely dark silhouette of a single vulture in the dark bare branches. Yesterday, they were focused on the woods right outside my back porch. What has caused them to suddenly make an appearance in an area they are not normally seen in and in such large numbers? Is it a sign of the apocalypse?

No. What it happens to be is the simple fact there has been numerous land clearings over the past year on our side of town. Vast acreage that once held meadow and wood have been given over to housing lots and cleared in the sake of progress. Most likely, a winter time roost was flattened and our new visitors opted to come into the edge of town while looking for a new roost spot. We really won’t know for sure until next year about this time. Perhaps they are just on the move from one spot to another. They seem to like it here. Actually, they seem to REALLY like it here as yesterday my family was treated to something none of us had ever seen before; turkey vultures mating in the trees behind our apartment.

I’m actually glad to see them hanging out in our neighborhood right now and respect them for who and what they are in our ecosystem. They quietly take care of the business few other creatures care to handle. All over the world, in nearly every culture, they are part of the direct connection in the circuit between death and new life. They are symbolic of resourcefulness, renewal and they facilitate the turning of the Wheel.  Once we get over our Western cartoon stereotypes we can begin to see how important and amazing these creatures are in the grand scheme of design.

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Playground Bluebird

Caught this fine fellow as he was teaching one of his fledglings to fly this morning.  The two of them were only in the open for a brief moment.


Bird Watching Surprise

We’ve had a bout of unseasonably warm weather this past week with highs into the 80’s and clear blue skies.  Top it all off with a light breeze and you’ve got all the makings of perfection.  I was chomping at the bit to hit up my local lunchtime spot but complications kept getting in the way.  Finally, I was able to get out for very hurried 45 minute walk along the nature trail with my trusty Canon Rebel XT.

The first thing I noticed was that the cardinals were out in full force on that particular day.  Within ten minutes I’d seen close to 6 or 10 zipping through the branches and calling to one another.  Matter of fact, after I got to my usual observation spot, I was sure they had pretty much taken over the area.

That’s when a slight gray blur traced through the corner of my vision.  It took me a moment to find where it had gone and several more minutes to get on it with the camera.  At first I thought it was a late slate junco so I attempted to get a few shots as practice for spring warbler migration.   If you’ve ever tried to photograph a small fast bird in brush with an automatic focus 300 mm zoom lens I think you’ll understand by the word “practice. ”

I was on the bird and struggling with the auto focus wanting to lock on branches between me and it when the bird turned and I got a shocking look of a bright yellow golden stripe down the center of its head.  It would seem I was practicing for shooting warblers by actually photographing the next best thing, a kinglet.

I flipped off the automatic focus and spent the next twenty minutes trying to get some decent captures.  I got three.  I’ll check it off as a success.

The bird above is a golden crowned kinglet and another one for my life list.  At the time I didn’t know what I was looking at but I made sure to make as many notes as possible.  After posting a small pic with a shoutout on Twitter later that evening, I got the ID confirmation I needed.  Once again, the power of Twitter reveals itself!

Shortly after it’s visit I heard  a loud rapid fire melody of different songs.  At first I thought it was a northern mockingbird but the song was much louder then I was used to.  I was about to change position to get a better view of what it might be when it suddenly flew into the high branches of a nearby tree.

I’d not seen a brown thrasher up so high before, normally encountering them on the ground foraging.  It’s singing made me grin because it was so loud and so different, almost playful.  He showed no concern to my presence and continued to sing for several minutes.  I stayed for a while, watching and listening until I realized I was out of time and needed to head back to the office.

As I turned and headed back to the car, the kinglet made a final appearance by landing on a branch no more than ten feet from me.  I had no time to get the camera ready as he was gone the minute I tried to slowly reach down for it.  They are such fast little birds!

Wordless Wednesday

King of The Branch

** Post-edit – Thanks to a comment I was quickly instructed that the birds in these photos are actually Red-Bellied Woodpeckers.   Not sure what I was thinking except that maybe I wasn’t! **

This is definitely one of those times where my camera is simply used to record experiences in the field and not for printable, hang on the wall, artwork.  I decided to put up a few more pics of the zany downy woodpecker gathering I saw and mentioned last week.

The woodpeckers, around five in all, were completely fixated on this one stump of  a branch.  One would lay claim to it, another would challenge, they both would fly off in different directions and then the whole thing would cycle over again with another bird.  It was like they were playing King of The Branch.  They were doing this for hours.  I first saw them at lunch.  During an afternoon break they were still at it and when I got into my car to leave for the day I could still hear them in the treeline.

And, as you can see, these images are pushed like mad in post processing.  The day was gray and overcast.  I was shooting into a shadowy treeline and trying to get enough shutter speed to capture what was going on.  I knew at the time I wouldn’t be able to hang these on any wall.  Instead of shrugging and giving up I went ahead and shot away.  I’m now glad I did because it gives me a good record of the experience and possibly some reference material for sketches down the way.   Added bonus?  I get to share it on my blog.

And finally, speaking of added bonuses, a little game.

It’s not the best game ever but it might distract you for a few seconds.  Below you’ll see a picture of a tree.  Within that tree is a mockingbird.  Can you spot it?

Ok, maybe that was too easy?

More Spring to come!

Early to The Party

Ever arrive at a house party a little early?  The host is too busy to chat as last minute details are getting set out, meals are being prepared and a general atmosphere of expectation fills the rooms.  Better yet, if you’ve arrived early at a performance and the entertainers are warming up and hanging out?  There is an energy, a pressure, of something just about to start up.  Everyone knows when it gets up to it’s full speed the event is going to be great but at the very beginning there is just a very low hum.

This is what it’s like in the woods these days.

After a long winter full of snow, long lasting cold spells and ice  there are now party decorations everywhere.  Things are about to get going and it’s about to get very very busy out there.  I was able to get out with the kids last weekend and they were able to see their first  Bald Eagle working the melting ice on Lake Monroe.  It was also my first photographic capture of an eagle.  I was delighted.

Initial signs are everywhere.  Bulbed flowers have begun pushing through the soil.  The first of the migrants are starting to make their way back into the area.  Reports of horned larks have filtered in.  Sandhill Cranes have been heard overhead.  Though not a migrant, I heard the signature call of a red-winged blackbird at dusk for the first time since early Fall.
Earlier this week the temperatures went up into the 50’s and I was delighted to see some red eared slider turtles hanging out at the pond during my afternoon nature walk.  Approaching the pond so many turtles splashed in it was like kids throwing rocks in the water.
Two days ago I watched five or six Downy Woodpeckers in an activity that looked like tag around a broken limb of a dead tree. This was the most Downy woodpeckers I’ve seen in one spot at one time.   One would claim the “base” and the other four would zip in and knock them off.  I can only assume it’s some form of spring courtship or maybe a territorial dispute.  All of them were partaking in the little game that seemed to go on all afternoon.
It’s an exciting time.  One of my new year’s resolutions was to get out more with the kids, the family, and just with myself.  More explorations to come and, I am happy to announce, a few more projects.  There are at least three in the works.  Secret plans that I have been concocting in the dark coyote cave during the gloomy winter months.  One will start almost immediately and I will be posting about others in the weeks and months to come.
Post edit note: Even after writing this post and collecting the photographs the past two days have sprung into the 60’s and low 70’s.  The party is happening and it’s happening FAST!

Winter Bluebird

On my weekly lunch walks at a nearby park I recently had the opportunity of watching a small flock of bluebirds work over fruit from a sumac tree.  Either they were abnormally hungry or more used to human presence since they allowed me to get quite close.

I remember seeing bluebirds for the first time as a child and being amazed at the brilliance of their blue.  In my child-like wisdom, I considered them a sign of good luck.  At that time, about 30 years ago, they were endangered.  I’ve learned since they were down nearly 70-75% in some areas of the country.  However, due to an aggressive nesting box and trail program by several Bluebird societies like The North American Bluebird Society, I see them nearly weekly.  Like Swallows and Martins, Bluebirds are also important with insect control eating all manner of them, including wasps and mosquito.

** Postscript 2/27/10 – I had written this post last weekend and scheduled it to post yesterday.  My last surviving grandparent, my grandmother, passed away on Thursday evening, the day before this post went live.    During a family gathering last night at my late grandmother’s home I noticed she had several small statuettes of birds, including bluebirds, around the place.  When I asked about them I was told by a relative that Grandma liked bluebirds and hummingbirds.  The property she and her husband owned near Lake Monroe reservoir as a family get-away was where I saw some of my first bluebirds as a child.   I remembered this post when I saw Cynthia’s reply notification pop up in my email.

It’s funny how these things work out sometimes, isn’t it?

Winter Lake Walk

The winter has not held back on snow in my area.  Several winter storms have passed through and dumped well over 8 inches in a few days.  This combined with a week long business trip has put a serious damper on my ability to get out and about.  However, just prior to the winter storm and my trip I was able to carve out an hour or so and got out to a nearby nature preserve on Lake Monroe.  Even though I’ve lived in the area all my life, I’d not had a chance to see this particular spot before.  Lake Monroe is host to a bald eagle program which has been incredibly successful over the past 25 years.  Though I had been fortunate enough to see one last summer, I’d hoped that I might be lucky in the limited time I had and catch sight of one of them.  Driving out the day was bright, blue, and cold.

After getting out of my car a great and steady Winter stillness met me.  I was alone in the parking lot.  The lake, frozen and locked for several weeks, offered no signs of life to someone with a hurried eye.  Getting my gear and moving away from my car, I did what I normally do, I stopped and waited.  Under the edge of the tree line, I was warm in my multiple layers, hat, and hunter’s gloves while the trees broke the wind.  It took around five minutes but I began to hear birdsong.  Then, zipping over the parking lot, I picked up a downy woodpecker and after that a small flock of juncos chased each other through the bare limbs by the shore.  Sounds and sights of life began appearing all around me.

I equate stepping into the woods to being the same as jumping into a pond.  Even more so in the dead of winter.  With no leaves to buffer sound, a heavy footstep or even a loud whisper can carry for several acres in the cold air.  Though you may not realize it, the sudden presence of a human into a woodland after hours or days of natural silence and rhythm is akin to tossing a large stone into a placid pond.  It takes awhile for the ripples to slow down.  If you don’t take the time for those ripples to slow and to calibrate yourself to the woodland there is a good chance you’ll miss a considerable amount.  Even five or ten minutes can make a sizable difference.

I hiked the water’s edge for awhile and then moved up the ridge while following a set of old coyote tracks in the snow.  These led me to a much more well worn path which showed considerable traffic coming and going from a downed maple tree, a den dug under the root ball.  The den was in full use that much was certain.  One of my goals is to get a series of good coyote shots so I mentally marked the place and promised myself to get it into my GPS.

Numerous calls of chickadees led me through the woods on the top of the ridge line where I came across an old road track.  I finally found them zipping amongst the young hardwoods and they showed no hesitation at my arrival.  Within minutes of my arrival and with my only movements being to raise my camera, they were racing past me and landing in the upper limbs a few yards away.  Eight or more Chickadees in total were moving through the area and the woods were full of their calling back and forth.

I watched them for awhile and then, regrettably, saw that my time was nearly up.  I headed back to the car, moving down the old road and saw in the snow that it was still very much in use by the above mentioned coyotes, several deer, and, for a short while, a rabbit.  Nature takes all things back eventually.

As you know I am a fan of survival, of perseverance.  Near the parking lot I saw a small thing which, in the habit of small things, made me late.  As the old road opened up to the new patches of light green lichen growing on the southeast hillside of rock caught my eye.

This patch was doing quite well on the rocky shelf and the image of their green clusters like islands in a sea of white snow made me smile.  On the miniature scale, I was reminded of a coral reef and how similar the two looked.  Lichen are a type of fungus and are able to grow in all forms of environments, from tundra to deserts.  They do not have roots but instead draw their nourishment through their surfaces and can go into extended periods of stasis which allows them to survive in drastic conditions.  They are sometimes the first type of life in an area and by their long age, growth and decomposition can form the first layer of soil for other seeds to gain nourishment.  Among a host of other tools, they are one of Nature’s “first steps.”  In short, they’re survivors.  When taken the time to appreciate them, they are also beautiful.

My walk finished I headed back to parking lot.   A woman in an old pick-up truck with its cab full of her and three terriers sat and looked out over the lake.  We waved to each other, two nature lovers greeting each other on a cold winter’s day.  I scanned the lake one more time for a raptor or, preferably, an eagle but there was no activity.  I stood in the same silence which had greeted me for a few minutes, soaking it all in. Then, I unloaded my gear, clambered back into my car and headed back into town.

Aptly Named

Just a quick post this time.  Yesterday morning I was looking out our dining room window and noticed some activity in the building next ours.  A female house sparrow was clinging to the wood slat siding.  Not that big of a deal until I realized she was right next to a small hole.  She would peck at it from time to time and then fly away.  Then, a male landed next to it followed closely by the female.

I scrambled for the binoculars to see what exactly was going on and then I went for my camera as the male suddenly disappeared into the wall of the house. I sat and watched for about a half hour as I watched the couple beat the cold wind in their tiny apartment.  I’m not sure it’s large enough in there for the both of them at the same time.  I’ve yet to see them both fit.  One flies away and the other arrives pretty systematically.  It’s possible they already have an egg or two in there and they are taking turns sitting on the nest.

I thought it would be fun to continue documenting the couple as they obviously prepare for the coming Spring.  Another big snow storm is heading our way and I’ll be keeping one eye their direction as we go through it.  I have a feeling they’re going to be just fine.

A Morning Winter Wandering

I walked out the door at dawn.  A winter storm had blown throughout the night and I was anxious to get out and see what it had left.  About three inches of pure white snow covered the ground.  Coming in on the heels of a rain it had been a heavy snow and hung on the tree branches, blasted against the trunks by the wind.

Blowing wind was keeping the windchill temperature at around 10 degrees and there was still snow in the air.  I did not expect a lot of bird activity.  My only spotting upon leaving my door was a lone crow high up in the treeline to the south.  I was shown the error of my expectation when not more than thirty feet from my door two mourning doves zipped past and a sharp-shinned hawk shot in from a slight angle in pursuit.  Seeing me, the hawk banked a hard left and gave up the chase as he whipped between the houses and disappeared.  Seeing the hawk in flight, the crow took off from his perch and followed in pursuit of the raptor.  The pursuer became the pursued.

Things calmed after that and I enjoyed a quiet walk.  Amongst the buildings of where I live, the wind was blocked and not as harsh.  Traces of it moved neighborhood wind chimes and for awhile it was the only sound lilted above the sound of the wind and my heels in the snow.  Several bird feeders were active with cardinals, juncos, and titmice.  I made for the woods along the north and west side of the area and once on the north side of the ridge and away from the houses the wind came into its full effect.  It announced its approach with a growing roar that, at times, mimicked a jet engine while swaying the highest tree tops.  Even bundled up as I was I could feel it whip at my clothes and slice through any opening.  Several times I turned to face it just so I could feel it full on.

I worked without gloves.  I do this when I work my camera.  I need to feel it in my hands, even if they are red and numb from the cold.  I’ll invest in some nice skintight ones eventually.  My thumbnails are always the first to hurt and the last to recover.  I  jammed them up under my first layer and into the pockets of second layer fleece jacket to get them to stop aching.  When my hands get that cold it’s easier to drop the camera or a lens and with so much snow on the ground I don’t risk it.  While I let them warm, I simply stand and take in the small bit of nature I can get on this chilly winter’s morning.

The woods  line the steep ridge and the creek that has cut the ridge’s banks. They were quiet around me. No activity, no bird calls, no movement.  Just wind.

I stood there for probably fifteen minutes waiting to see anything.  Below, the valley flattened and gives way to a large elementary school playground.  I could hear and sometimes see a bladed truck uncovering the parking lot.  I wanted to go down to the open area but I don’t trust the snow covered ridge bank.  There’s a path there but it’s narrow, treacherous, and I just don’t feel like making my way down the sometimes 75 to 80 degree embankment.  I entertained myself by finding a few landscapes.  The sun is hidden behind a thick cloud layer so I work with the light I have.

I wander back out of the woods and walk around the neighborhood some more.  The bird activity has gone up even more.  The flock of robins which is roosted nearby has returned and they were everywhere, darting from tree to tree, winging through whirls of blowing snow from the roof edges and landing near some of the slushed snow along the plowed road.  Among them are the cedar waxwings again and I counted around seven in total.  Sparrows, chickadees, and two goldfinches joined them where some have gathered around on the ground near the slush.  The whole flock is moving fast and to the west obviously looking for a food source.  They check out a few crab apple trees but they are empty and the flock passed on.

As I watched them a  shape further up in the sky caught my eye.  I looked up and a gull, I believe a ring-necked, cut its way through the gray sky and blowing snow.  Perhaps a castaway from Monroe Reservoir or perhaps winging away from the nearby shopping area where a spare french fry could be found, it drifted in a few circles.   I got my binoculars on it but could only see a white belly and black tips on the sharp narrow wings.  It does not appear to know where it’s going.  There is no time to get the camera ready and the bird is already too far away.  In no time at all the bird is gone, disappearing behind the tree line.  I wondered what its story might be but I will never know.

The wind whipped me again and I’m only a handful of yards from a warm house and warmer coffee.  I’ve been out a little over an hour and I could stay out longer.  However, the promise of coffee and a warm breakfast called so I listened and pointed my feet home.