Bird brained stories!

Friday, April 08, 2011

Birding....The Next Generation!

Recently, I became the "owner" of abundant free time. Yesterday I used some of that free time to take my 19 month old grandson, Angelo, for a little birding field trip. He was given the cool Fisher Price binoculars once owned by his father...yes, they really work!...and we set off into the LaCrosse River Marsh. This is a great area to introduce children to birds and birding, because it's fairly certain they'll see birds, and often up close.

The water was predictably high from the recent snowmelt and minor flooding, but the trails were still above water. Off we went! Of course, we didn't get very far. There were Red Winged Blackbirds right there! I showed him how I used my binoculars to bring the birds up close. He first wanted to put the eyepiece to his mouth, but that is the nature of some toddlers with anything new. Finally he got the idea and....the photo shows his reaction.


From there, we spotted the ever present Canada Geese. We were able to get several close to water's edge looks at muskrats before they dove under and away. I was amazed that by getting down behind him, speaking in hushed tones and pointing out a Great Blue Heron, that he kept that same attitude and got nice long looks before it lifted up from the weeds.

He would mimic certain bird calls... Canada Geese, Tree Swallows and Red Winged he watched their activities. At one point, two geese on the trail in front of us got into a squabble with another pair and he was ready to rush in to referee. First lesson of birding..."Angelo, no, geese are MEAN!" Surprising how fast little feet can go when they have a mission!

The child knows quality, too. He wanted to look through my binoculars, and after that...the Fisher Price ones came off and dumped on the trail!

All told, we were probably out there almost two hours. When he'd tired of looking at birds, he found a nice pile of rocks to throw into the water, an activity that he relished for almost half an hour. Though he's spent time before with Grandma pointing out birds by name, this was his first real birding outing. Interestingly, the only thing he actually calls "bird" is an American Robin. He'll figure it out.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

One last bird.....

Birding for me has been so local that other than the endless Chickadees, Cardinals and Blue Jays, I feel like there's not much for me to share. Sure, I had the great good fortune in the spring to take part in the WSO field trip to see the Kirtland's Warblers, after which we hit a field with lots of shorebirds to add to The List. I think I was in such a haze for so long after that, I had nothing to say here besides...aaah!

Reports in the final days of the year kept tempting me from across the state, though. A Black-Legged Kittiwake was being seen in Port Washington, clear across the state. Should I? Or shouldn't I? I hadn't really chased any birds since the Green Breasted Mango that showed up in Beloit a couple years ago. I'd passed on so many possibilities, but maybe just this once, I could go look for another new bird.

Why not? I was able to make a reservation for a bed and breakfast near West Bend, heading out right after work, along those wonderfully dark two lane highways between here and there. I was ready for the fireplace and the fluffy duvet once I arrived at my overnight home.

Taking a leisurely pace, with coordinates for endless geocaches loaded into my GPSr in case I whiffed on the kittiwake, I headed the rest of highway 33 to Lake Michigan. While heading toward the canal, I looked up over my head, not more than 10 feet, and what do I see? Good grief, it was that easy?


I spent a good hour or more enjoying this young bird, far from its normal haunts, as it enjoyed the easy pickings from the fishermen. Chatting with one of the fishermen, he wanted to know what the heck all us binocular people were looking at anyway. He laughed and said, "Well, guess I look at him differently, cause he keeps stealing my catch!"

The year certainly was not a Big Year, or even a medium sized year for me. That's okay. I enjoyed each and every bird that let me visit, ending with a very modest life bird list of 233 North American birds. No one needs to worry about me passing them up. I take my time, observe their behavior and take photos if I'm lucky. This coming year, I will finally get to add Common Puffin to my list, a bird I've long wanted to see, and have been in places where I should have seen them, but didn't. Not taking any chances when I travel to St. Johns, Newfoundland and Labrador. We're booking a whale and puffin cruise!

Here's to good birding in the new decade.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Incidental birding


It's been a summer of activities that allow me to view birds, but not pursue them. Perhaps we enjoyed the rattling calls of Belted Kingfishers leading us down the Little Eau Claire River as we paddled, or had close enounters with Turkey Vultures as we stood atop a high point in Lansing Iowa, overlooking the Mississippi River.
Maybe it's just been looking out my kitchen window as I cooked, enjoying the garden variety birds that hang out nearby.

Doesn't matter....even though I haven't pursued bird sightings lately as in the past, I find that understanding their behavior, knowing their songs and calls and being alert to their presence adds to my enjoyment of the world outdoors. Wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone found their particular nature passion, whether it be birds, snakes, trees or any of the many other delights that await us? If we can only appreciate what's out there to teach us, perhaps the assault on our environment could be turned. It's easy to dismiss "birds," less so, " a lone Whooping Crane on the flowage."

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Spirit guide or happy coincidence?

Lady Pileated struts her stuff as we searched for letterbox hybrids in Brown County

While I love any bird with which I'm sharing oxygen, one bird, it seems, has become a personal totem or spirit guide for me. I've always been especially partial to Pileated Woodpeckers. Who isn't? Their huge size, their ability to soar, pterodactyl-like, over our head in the woods, vanishing on sight while laughing at us, are all the makings of a fun kind of bird. If you've read this blog, you know I've written about my encounters with Pileateds more than once.

Lately, I've begun to understand the idea of spirit guides and how they come to us. While I am not a person whose culture or belief system embraces such things, my experiences with these birds have shown me the way. My husband, a non-birder, has learned to identify the raucous calls of these birds, and to expect that if we hear them, he can plan on stopping whatever it is we're doing until I spot it. It's that simple. Every successful marriage is based on the partners' abilities to accept and adjust to the quirks of each other, and this is one of them.

This moves beyond quirkiness. When I've been privileged to have very close or special encounters with these birds, it seems they happen at times when I need signs or reassurance. The very close encounter, accompanied by dead camera batteries, came at a time when life had thrown me some hard stuff, and that moment gave me a chance to remove my thoughts, if only briefly, from those challenges and be truly in the moment. As my husband and I have been sucked deeper into the geocaching world, we've sought out those caches that take us to wonderful new places, hiking up the side of felsenmeers or canoeing along riverways. As we've done so, a Pileated will often call nearby. It seems to correlate with those hunts we expect to be most challenging, the ones where the dreaded "did not find" might be the end result. Every....single....time; if the Pileated calls, we make those difficult finds. I looked for one along the Wisconsin River near Portage last month, one that had not been found in months and that was buried under a thick blanket of snow and at least a half inch of ice. As I threw snow and freed deadfalls from the chokehold of ice, I heard that happy laugh...just as I was about to put an end to almost an hour's worth of searching. That gave me the incentive to press on, and sure enough....there was the cache.

My spirit guide goes beyond being a lucky charm for a treasure hunting game. Recently, I had a health scare. I had to go in for tests in the morning, and they wanted me to come in later that afternoon for more tests. It was troublesome to make the drive home, as I'd just be turning around and coming back. I chose to hike some trails overlooking the city that had not been hiked by any but the deer in quite some time. Not one, but two Pileateds, probably a nesting pair seeking a suitable nest site, were calling each other....and following me up the side of the bluff to the ridge top and beyond. I took their presence as a hopeful sign.

I was right. My health scare was just that, a scare.

Though I'd suspected it for a long time, that experience cemented in my mind that Pileated Woodpeckers are truly my spirit guide, appearing at those times when I need one, providing reassurance that my path is true.

I'd love to hear others' stories of their animal guides. Share them in the comments, and thanks for visiting.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Doing the Mango

Is there a birder alive who does not love hummingbirds? Heck, even non-birders love them, just take a look at any mail order catalog and see how many items are hummingbird-themed. Living in the eastern half of the United States, I enjoy Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds. Period. There have been vagrants coming into the area, but time and distance never allowed me to "chase" them. I'm not a bird-chaser by nature, anyway. Ninety-nine percent of the birds on my not-big life list have been seen right in my own three county birding territory. I like it that way. I might not see a huge variety, but I get to know the birds of my neighborhood well, and can visit throughout the season and watch as they move through their annual cycle of nesting, raising young and migrating, if they are so inclined. I've been greatly influenced by a comment made by Kenn Kaufman in The Kingbird Highway. Near the end of his year of birding the country, he caught himself in a reflective moment, realizing that he was racing to count the birds without taking the time to get to know them. Still......

Reports started coming in from the Wisconsin Birding Network of an immature Green Breasted Mango, endemic to Costa Rica, that was visiting feeders in a yard in Beloit. Even better, the homeowners were very willing to allow birders to come visit. Driving three hours, burning fossil fuels....these fly in the face of my personal birding ethics.'s an exotic hummingbird! One that has only been recorded 15 times above the border, most of those along the Texas border.

I wrestled with my birding ethics and decided that I'd go. Part of Wisconsin birding history and all that. Problem was, it didn't seem like any day was opportune. The first weekend after the report, we'd already made plans to go north to help my husband's parents with some fall chores. Granted, we enjoyed breathtaking fall colors while hiking several of the falls in search of geocaches. Ravens and Pileated Woodpeckers were giving long open looks. We even had great looks at two different Timber Wolves; one even howled for us. It was grand indeed, but that was two days with no chance for a trip to Beloit.

Each school day offered some new challenge to a personal day as well. Faculty meeting. New preschool student starting. Sure, I could have taken a day, but there are work ethics, too. Finally, Friday seemed to be a day I could take off. Lots of my students were on field trips, anyway, no duty, no meetings....I was off! Not knowing for sure if it was still being seen, I planned out some geocaches to do on the way there and back. It was still burning fossil fuels, but the rationalization said that along with seeing this rarity, I was getting DeLorme pages for a geocaching challenge. Saving gas instead of burning it to meet the challenge. As I said, rationalization.

I arrived at the home and noted not too many vehicles along the road. Heading up behind the hostess's home, I saw a cluster of people facing an orchard behind the homes. Lifting my binoculars, even at a distance, I could see it...a huge hummingbird with a curved bill, perched high on an apple tree!

I spent the next two hours in the company of birders who'd come from Chicago and St. Paul. One of the Chicago birders had just purchased a very nice scope, and generously offered us its use to get even closer views. When I arrived, the Mango had apparently just finished bathing, as its feathers were very ruffled and it spent time preening. It put itself into positions worthy of a contortionist as it smoothed and rearranged its jewel-like feathers. Every so often, it would fly up, then alight. Each time, it kept its back to us, though a few times, it turned enough to allow a view of the cinnamon wash on the sides of its breast. For one brief moment, it gave a full frontal view, allowing a quick look at that center stripe with hints of blue. Always, we had excellent views of those deep purple tailfeeathers.

Over the next couple hours, it followed a pattern that became predictable. From the orchard, it would head to a basswood tree in the yard, picking insects from the treetop. It flew from there to the feeder, long enough for folks to snap a few photos, never perching as it fed. From there, it would head into a maple tree near the feeders, perch momentarily as if to allow its snack to settle, then zoom off to the orchard again. At one point, it zoomed right through our little group on its way to the orchard, a miniature B-52 buzzing the crowd!

As I chatted with the ladies from Chicago, one made the comment that she, too, did not know for sure if the Mango was still here before she left to travel. She had told herself that if she saw it, that would be grand, but if it had gone, that would also be grand. I had thought the same exact thing. When these gems wander so far afield of their habitat, the prognosis for them is grim. Although this little celebrity bird has brought joy to folks coming here from Alaska, Georgia, Arizona and West Virginia, that joy is overshadowed by the thought that if it can't find its way back to Central America soon, the story will have a sad ending.

Yes, I'm glad I had a chance to share that joy with birders from all over, but I still can't help but wonder----all these reports of birds showing up in places they shouldn't be; what does this signal for our fragile planet? When we're out in remote areas hiking, I often find our way back out by listening for the birds I heard on the way in. My husband thinks I'm whacked, but it works every time. If he were out there alone, I'd never see him again! Certain birds will be found in certain places and I've learned to know where those places will be. Let's hope that like my own navigation system, this little bird suddenly realizes that he's not hearing the right birds, and should be in a certain place, far from Wisconsin. Still, many of us are thrilled that he chose to follow an old state tourism slogan to "escape to Wisconsin."

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Visits of the season....

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Nuthatches have always struck me as one of the cutest birds out there. Truth be told, pretty much any perching bird qualifies as "cute" in my mind, but Nuthatches are just so darn jaunty and perky. Any bird that can charge down a treetrunk head first over and over again has to be a top contender in the "cute" contest. For the past few weeks, I've been enjoying a double dose of cuteness in my yard.

White Breasted Nuthatches live in my yard year round. They, like many other birds, make themselves scarce during the nesting season but return once the kids are grown up and moved out. A couple weeks ago, I was in the house when I heard a call from the pine grove that could have doubled for the Little Nash Rambler of song. Could it be?

Sure enough, the Red Breasted Nuthatches have been making themselves at home for the time being, doing battle with the bigger White Breasted for the seed feeders. Both seem to prefer the sunflower seeds, grabbing one, flying off and then stashing it elsewhere. While hanging clothes on the line today, they were constantly darting to the nearby tree, then to the feeder and off to another tree, repeating this sequence over and over. At one point, I saw two Red Breasteds, and for all I know, there's a gang of them back in those pines. However many there may be, I'm glad they've stopped and stayed for awhile, giving me the chance to enjoy their absolute cuteness, right down to their toy car horn call.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Feathers from heaven?

Fair warning; this post will contain nothing of objective scientific observation. Instead, it wanders into what my storytelling friends call "woo woo" territory. Be forewarned.

One of the joys of having varied interests can also be one of the frustrations. Though passionate about birds, bordering to the point of obsession, I do have other things I enjoy doing as well. One of them is geocaching, which does get me out adventuring in the wilderness, but since this is an activity shared with my peripatetic husband, any birding has to happen incidentally. We've been doing a lot of geocaching this summer, thus my serious birding activities have been on a downswing.

My other big passion and sometimes job, as regular readers may recall, is storytelling. In fact, with one exception, all my close friends are also storytellers. I have found myself combining these two passions into a little niche market. I've collected or created a series of stories that entertain while educating the listeners about various aspects of birds and the lives they lead. You want a storyteller who can fit your "Wing Ding" theme for a park event? I'm your girl. I'm pretty adamant that any stories for such venues, though they can have birds that talk and such other elements of imagination, maintain accuracy about the birds and their behavior.

Given that, what comes next is where things enter into the realm of woo woo. Last Friday, a dear friend passed from this world to the next. It was very sudden and all too quick. Symptoms first appearing in a fabulously healthy person on July 1, passing quietly on August 24. I'd been holding her close in my thoughts since her journey began, and was visiting family in northern Wisconsin when the word came Friday evening.

Saturday morning, my husband, his brother and I set out for a geocaching marathon throughout the forests and lakes of the Nicolet National Forest. I had my birding gear along, knowing that if anything interesting came by, my husband was sufficiently entertained by his brother for me to wander off with binoculars in hand. Almost right away, as we headed into the woods, a flash and a chuckling sound caught my eye. I was off. Camera in hand, I put my new found skills in "pishing" to work, calling in a family group of curious Gray Jays. These birds don't live near me, so I was delighted to have good looks at these "camp robbers." Even more delightful, one paused long enough to give me a quizzical sidelong glance while I took a photo.

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I saw and enjoyed other birds throughout the day. When we returned home Sunday night, I was delighted to hear the whinny calls of an Eastern Screech Owl late at night outside. I have not heard them near my home before, and it led me out into my backyard late at night in my pjs, looking up at the stars and hoping for a shadowy flight across the sky.

Today, as I sat writing my tribute to my friend Leanne on my storytelling blog, just as I put my final touches on it before hitting "publish," something outside my window caught my attention. A female hummingbird was at my feeder! I typically don't have them coming until this time of year, but still, the timing of her first appearance of the season struck me as more than coincidence. My friend Leanne knew well my fixation for things avian. She regularly sent me horrible birdy puns and helped me in my search for "real" bird stories when I was developing my program. I just can't help but think that these birds, whose wings bring them closer to heaven, were messengers to grab my attention, Leanne's way of letting me know that everything is fine and we'll tell stories together again one day. Leanne, we all miss you down here already, and thanks for sending those birds my way. Till we meet again......

Monday, June 18, 2007

New life, new hope....

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Reports have trickled in about two, possibly three female Kirtland's Warblers nesting at an undisclosed location in central Wisconsin. The Kirtland's is a highly endangered songbird, nesting in carefully managed jackpine forests near Greyling Michigan...until now. For a number of years, birders have seen and heard singing males, some not far from my own birding territory. The birding community has long held that where there are singing males, interested females will soon follow. Last week, the news was released. One of the females was sitting on a nest of four eggs. The birding community is celebrating, and I hope that we can continue to celebrate as forest management practices create suitable nesting habitat for these birds.

In the meantime, I will happily accept this intimate view of family life of one such family that nested in the neighbor's drainpipe. Loud, flashy and boistrous, this view reminds me that they're parents, too. Celebrate this fact and enjoy the birds close at hand. Reports are suggesting some of these, too, are declining. Be reminded that though we might take birds like the Blue Jay or the Eastern Meadowlark for granted in our landscape, our choices as individuals and communities do matter.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Into the forest

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In fairytales, girls who wander into the forest often face challenges, even danger. They lose their way. Maybe it's the storyteller in me seeking to live a fairytale that led me out into the forest this morning. Maybe I just wanted to lose myself.

There is an enchanted forest not far from home that I love to explore, especially in the springtime. The trails meander up and down the slope through prairie, sumac and honeysuckle stands, hardwoods of oak and hickory, leading through rocky outcrops that rise up out of the earth. Spring ephemerals glow in the morning sunlight; mayflowers, nodding trillium, Jack-in-the-pulpit mingle with hillside carpets of tall ferns. For watching birds, it is sublime; one can stand and look up the hill and see what's calling from the underbrush or look at treetop warblers from above. This morning, the forest was alive with the music of birds, especially Tennessee Warblers. At every turn, three or four of them were singing from the treetops, trying to own their space. At the edges, the "bee buzz" of Blue Winged Warblers could be heard. Deep in the forest, the strange call of the Veery preceded its rare appearance, bird of the forest floor that it is.

Rose Breasted Grosbeaks seemed to be everywhere, and though the leaf cover of the forest made photography a challenge, somehow I was rewarded with views of one nabbing his breakfast. A pair of Grosbeaks was seen together, allowing a good look at the difference between the boys and the girls of this species.

At one point, the calls of a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers grabbed my attention. They always do. While waiting to see how close they would come, it seemed that the birds of the forest close by exploded around me, dropping practically to eye level on all sides, their singing intensified as if to draw my view back to them.

I wandered, enjoying the sense of being lost in the woods, though I knew that eventually I'd find my way back to the blufftop prairie. The only real danger I faced was the strong desire to simply stay where I stood, amidst the ferns and stands of red pine, smelling the life of the forest floor and scent of honeysuckle, birdsong swirling about my head. As in most fairytales, the spell was eventually broken and I returned to life as I usually know it. Still, as I wandered the aisles of Target, my imagination was hearing not the Muzak of the PA system, but the music of the forest. Ahhh!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

They're back!

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It's been a long winter in so many ways for me. The weather doesn't typically stop me from getting out and enjoying the natural world and the feathered friends who inhabit it, but this past year, other things have. With spring full upon us, I could take it no more. I was out on the marsh trails by 8AM this morning, and it felt good!

My time watching birds has been scarce for so long, I needed to spend time remembering how to even look for them. I forget that the warblers and other migrants aren't going to just perch in front of me most of the time--although this Palm Warbler was fairly obliging. Like these active insectivores themselves, I found my eyes at first darting here and there through the leafy canopy, only to see nothing but leaves. I had to remind myself to stop, watch and listen. Once I remembered that, I was richly rewarded. So many Baltimore Orioles! American Redstarts! My first Common Yellowthroat of the season. The Yellow-Headed Blackbirds croaking away, with the Soras and Pied Billed Grebes adding to the weird chorus from the water nearby.

I parked myself on a fallen tree to wait quietly to see what would appear. The chorus of songs was loud, varied and almost too much to bear. Trying to pick out one song over the others yielded way to just enjoying nature's symphony. The frogs added to the effect, shrouded as it all was in just a faint early morning fog over the still water of the wetlands.

An entire morning, slowly roaming the trails and deer paths to see and hear what has returned at last...this is therapy far better than shopping. Songs silenced since nesting last summer are returning to the woods, wetlands and fields. Today was an eleven warbler day for me. Take some time to get outside and enjoy this all too fleeting season in the cycle of life.

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