Monday, December 30, 2013

A Twinge of Regret

(This is Chris Evans, not my intern)
Our organization offers "internships" for college students during the summer.  I would like to think that our internships contribute to our students' educations but, in reality, the internships are mostly unpleasant "slave labor" in the hottest, steamiest, and buggiest months of the year when repeated rounds of string-trimming, lawn mowing, and herbiciding consume the students' days.

Most of the kids move on and disappear after they finish college, but a few stay in touch.  One of our previous interns is nearing the end of his doctoral program; he described a new subspecies of bird after doing field work in South America.

Another of our previous interns stopped by the office this afternoon.  He is close to earning his Master's degree in marine zoology - working on the effects of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  This young man is now 28 years old - handsome, bearded, bespectacled, and so much more mature than when he worked here as an undergraduate.  And, most of all, he is optimistic and motivated.  I bent his ear for nearly an hour, reveling in his enthusiasm, excitement, and professionalism.

I'm pretty sure that a lot of his demeanor has to do with his youth and the stage at which he finds himself in his career, but he brought back for me some of the same enthusiasm I felt when I was in graduate school at his age.

He also made me feel a little bit sad, too, because I've all but lost that spark.   

Winter Traffic Jam at the Beach for an Owl

A traffic jam on Wildlife Drive; the white specks in the water are overwintering Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens)
Kali and I enjoy visiting the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge just north of Atlantic City, New Jersey during the winter to observe the overwintering waterfowl; we've paid a visit on or around New Year's Day for three years now - looks like we've got a tradition going.  Because the forecast showed last Saturday (December 29) would be the best day for a week, we took advantage of the sunny skies and temperatures in the low 50s F to make our annual migration. 

Forsythe is always a great place to visit but, this year there's a special "draw": two of the large number of Snowy Owls (Nyctea scandiaca) that have erupted from the Arctic and which are spending the winter in the eastern United States have decided that Forsythe is good overwintering habitat.  We hoped we would be lucky, but we knew we'd enjoy the day regardless.

Upon reaching the refuge, we knew we were in for an unusual day.  First, the parking lot where people stop to register and pay their entrance fee was filled to capacity (usually, there are one or two cars when we visit).  Then, as we started on the 8-mile Wildlife Drive through the refuge, we could see cars everywhere.

Our first stop was a lone tree crowded by birdwatchers alongside the drive.  Sitting calmly about 15 feet off the ground was a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), probably wondering what all the fuss was about.
Male Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)
Another handsome Northern Pintail (slightly pixelated from being digitally enlarged)
Our second stop was alongside the drive were a large group of birdwatchers had gathered and were looking down the embankment into high grass and weeds.  I couldn't see what they were observing until one of the birdwatchers pointed out an American Bittern (Botarus lentiginosus) stalking mice.  Bitterns are so perfectly camouflaged that they all but blend into the grass and weeds they inhabit, so they are rarely observed on the ground.  I have no idea how these people found this bird (unless it flew in) because I could hardly see it even when they pointed it out to me.  This was only my second bittern ever, so I was excited.

We continued along the drive observing waterfowl until we came to a point at which all traffic stopped and everyone got out of their cars and crowded the verge.  Of course, we followed the crowd - and were rewarded with one of the highlights of our birdwatching careers: one of the Snowy Owls.  Jokingly, I said it looked like a soccer ball on the ground, and I immediately got some dirty looks from the other birders.  Below are the best pictures I could capture with my camera.  The first image was how the bird looked in the field; the second two images are digitally enlarged on the computer.  What a great day all around!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Wildlife Incident Report

Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus)
(The image accompanying this post is a detail from a woodcarving of a Sharp-shinned Hawk by Tim McEachern of Nature's Way.  It captured the intimidating look of this raptor better than photographic images I reviewed.)

Kali is using up some of her vacation time before the end of the year, so she stayed home today and slept in.  I came home around noon and we had lunch together.  Just as we had finished eating, we heard the muffled sound of breaking glass.  "Damned cats!  What have they gotten into now?"  But everything seemed copacetic on the feline front.

Then I went out into the enclosed porch.  The porch is attached to the back of the house on the second floor and, as such, is at least 10 feet off the ground.  The porch was likely built along with the rest of the 1925 addition to the house and is enclosed with 10 large (3' x 4') single pane windows permanently caulked into wooden frames.

Once I got out on the porch, I saw that one of the windows was shattered and a raptor lay crumpled on the floor amid shards of glass.  Great...either this magnificent bird's dead or I've got to make a trip to the wildlife rehab clinic an hour away.

When I approached the bird, though, it gather itself together, spread it's wings, opened its beak, and glared at me to make itself look as fearsome as possible.  It worked, and I backed off.  I went out to get a heavy blanket to throw over the bird, but when I got back, the bird had jumped up onto the windowsill.  Within a few seconds, it had found the hole in the glass and flown off.

A very large female Sharp-shinned Hawk has been patrolling my bird feeder for the last few weeks, and she must have been chasing a fleeing victim or she saw a reflection in the window and tried to confront a rival.  All's well that ends well (for the bird).  For me, now I've got to try to get the window replaced.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Vanity (A Failed Experiment)

Creek in the moonlight - with my condensing breath
There's a very special place in "my" preserve called Peak Woods.  It's a 7-acre remnant old growth forest with huge American beeches, tuliptrees, and oaks cloaking a rocky, east-facing hillside rising up steeply from the bank of the creek.  I love to walk the trail alongside the creek at the base of the slope early on moonlit nights because the moonlight penetrates deeply into the forest and it reflects on the riffles in the creek, turning the water to quicksilver.

Last night, there was the added benefit of freshly fallen snow on the landscape, so I went for a walk soon after the moon rose - and I took my camera with me to try to capture some of the magic. 

In general, I was sorely disappointed - but I'm sharing the images with you anyway (hence, the first part of my post's title).  The woods and the creek were beautiful, but I was unable to capture the ambiance.  My camera has a "night scene" setting, but there just wasn't enough light even for that setting.  To do the woods justice, I need to bring along my tripod and shoot with a very long exposure.  And, to dress much more warmly!
The shadow of a bankside tree
My camera's flash kept going off; I assumed the camera was trying to measure the distance to the nearest object in order to focus the lens properly.  And, it probably was doing so, but it was also artificially illuminating the woods, an effect I was trying to avoid.

After photographing the creek and the woods, I was headed back to my car when the moonlight shining behind a post-and-rail fence caught my eye.  I figured, "What the heck; I'll give it a try." but the camera didn't seem to respond, so I gave up - and moved slightly just as the shutter clicked.  Here's the result.  If I'd had more patience, it might have made a nice image.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Snow at First Light

View of my back yard at first light on Tuesday
The northern Piedmont got about two inches of snow on Sunday afternoon, much of which melted when the precipitation turned to rain on Sunday night.  Monday was cold, overcast, and dreary, but precipitation-free.  At rush hour on Tuesday morning, snow began again in earnest, finishing up around 3 p.m. after leaving three more inches. 
We intentionally left this dead pine standing in our front yard to attract woodpeckers; visitors call it the "totem tree."
Catching the first rays

Pink and blue
The second-oldest part of the house in which we live; the oldest part was built in 1791.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Thanksgiving Survivors and Turkey Turds (for Robin Andrea & Mark)

With my recent surgery, I've been "mobility challenged" so I can't go for walks or take images.  Hopefully, that situation will improve over the next few weeks.

I'd mentioned previously that a hen turkey and her single "adolescent" chick (probably hatched in early August vs. a typical early May hatching) had been coming to my feeder to eat every morning.  They "survived" Thanksgiving, but I think I jinxed them.  On Friday after Thanksgiving, I photographed the pair at the feeder, but on Saturday I noticed a single hen mixed into an otherwise all-male flock...uh oh.  Yesterday, I noticed the same configuration of a single hen among two dozen toms.  Then, this morning, the hen came up to the feeder unaccompanied by her youngster.  I don't know what happened; we've had relatively mild weather, so I doubt that the adolescent succumbed to the elements.  I wonder if a Great Horned Owl could have picked it off its perch at night, or if the youngster fell victim to a coyote.
Follower Robin Andrea mentioned that she'd never seen turkey feces (that she recognized, anyway), and Follower Mark said that the feces of male and female turkeys twist in opposite directions, so I photographed a few examples.  When the turkeys have plenty of good stuff to eat, their feces look like those in the following images (gender unknown).  Most of the fibrous fecal matter is brownish or greenish, but there's a bit of white uric acid at one end.

If the turkeys don't have enough to eat, or if what they're eating is moist, or if they've drunk a lot of water, they produce feces like this one, which (trust me) is as slippery as a proverbial banana peel.