Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving!

feeling or showing an appreciation of kindness; thankful. "I'm grateful to my family and friends for all of the love you've given me." synonyms: thankful, appreciative
I was talking to my mom this morning about how special Thanksgiving is. She summed it up with one word, grateful. It truly is wonderful to have a day set aside every year to simply be grateful for everyone in our lives and all that we have. I'm deeply grateful I have a loving and kind family, close friends and neighbors, and sweet pets and animals...

A heart made of acorns to show the love and appreciation of nature.
...and I'm also grateful for Mother Nature and all the love she has to offer!
Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Gobble, gobble...

...makes you think of the birds that will soon grace many tables on Thanksgiving Day, right? Sounds logical, but I'm not talking about those birds at all. I'm referring to the "greedy" Blue Jays in my backyard gobbling up sunflower seeds and peanuts like they are going out of style...

One of our backyard Blue Jays on the coconut feeder outside our kitchen window. He's not greedy. He's filling the gular pouch in his throat with sunflower seeds to hide in one of his many winter food caches. 

How can one bird eat that many seeds?
It can't! When you see Blue Jays downing one seed after another, watch closely, and you'll see they aren't eating the seeds at all, they are storing them in a pouch in their throats called a gular pouch. Blue Jays have a built-in carrying case called a gular pouch under their tongues. This expandable pouch extends down into their throats as far as the upper esophagus. In late summer and all through the fall Blue Jays and other birds, such as chickadees, nuthatches, and Tufted Titmice, start hoarding acorns and other seeds and nuts in winter caches. By storing their food, they can survive long, cold winters when their normal food sources freeze over or run out.

Click here for an older post with photos of a Blue Jay filling his gular pouch with peanuts, and learn how Blue Jays with their acorn caching ways repopulated areas with oak trees after the last glaciers retreated.

Click here for an earlier post on scatter-hoarding and winter food-caching birds in our area.

Gobble,'s fun to watch Blue Jays gobbling up sunflower seeds. They waste no time filling their gular pouches, then fly off to a winter cache, deposit them, and come back for more.

Blue Jays behaving badly (or is it just fall migration?)...
While most of the red, yellow and gold leaves of autumn have fallen from the trees and faded away, it's still fall, and Blue Jays are still out there doing their autumn antics. My mom called a few weeks ago reporting 17 Blue Jays were in her backyard behaving badly. They were impersonating hawks, stealing seed, frightening the titmice, and taking over every feeder in their yard...but, she loved it! It's very exciting to have a marauding band of migrating Blue Jays in your yard, especially when you live in the city! She wanted to know what was going on, so I let her know in autumn, some northern Blue Jays take to the wing and migrate south, while others stay put. When they migrate, they form large groups of what really do look like marauding bands, and when a flock lands in your backyard, watch out. They will raid all of your feeders and plunder till nothing remains. Then they will be gone in a flash, not to return.

Click here for a pdf of a paper by Paul A. Stewart in North American Bird Bander, July-Sep. 1982, titled, "Migration of Blue Jays in Eastern North America," pgs 107 - 112. Stewart analyzes banding and recovery records to identify the birds' migratory movements, showing Blue Jays are partly migratory because some groups stay throughout the year, and of those that do migrate, not all return to their same nesting grounds. Stewart includes maps that show the locations of direct recoveries of banded migratory birds.

This fellow is not part of a marauding band. He's just a regular at the Coconut Cafe outside our kitchen window. 

...put the blue in the coconut and shake it all up. 

Gobble up those sunflower seeds Ol' Blue and secret them off to your winter food cache. Your scatter-hoarding will get you through the winter, plus it's great for seed dispersal!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Big Water, Big Grass (or...when ignorance really is bliss)

During the first weekend of November, my parents, my aunt, my cousin, and I headed up to Maumee Bay State Park and Lodge near Toledo, Ohio to kick off the winter. It's been a tradition of ours to head north for the last hurrah of fall so we can experience Big Water, go hiking, and do a lot of laughing. Each year we tend to focus on a piece of natural history in the area, and this year it was the tall grasses or reeds that line the boardwalk in the marsh...

Behemoth grasses (Phragmites australis) line the boardwalk in the wetlands at Maumee Bay State Park. The reeds are outrageously beautiful, but the beauty comes at a price...a non-native monoculture that is choking out native plants.

Non-native Phragmites (Phragmites australis), the common reed
We had no idea what this sea of grass was as we walked through it. Down in Cincinnati we're not exposed to grasses that live near Big Water, so when we were walking through the towering reeds with their feathery plumes backlit in the late-afternoon sun, we didn't know it was a bad thing. We just knew it was breathtakingly beautiful, especially when the autumn breezes swept through the fronds, tossing them, and swirling them in one fluid motion...but unfortunately, the 15-ft tall plants are a non-native, invasive species that is slowly choking the life out of biodiverse coastal marshes and wetlands. As phragmites rushes through a wetland, it creates a monoculture in its wake, creating dense thickets that squeeze out native plants such as cattails.

A sea of common reeds is beautiful from the observation deck on the boardwalk in the coastal wetlands of Lake Erie.
If only it were supposed to be there... 

Phragmites australis, the common reed, along the Lake Erie coast.

We loved walking the boardwalk at Maumee Bay State Lodge. It winds through a wet woods that was filled with migrating White-crowned Sparrows and then pushes through an expansive marsh where Red-winged Blackbirds were gathering.

Even though the reeds have squeezed out many of the native plants, a small flock of Black-capped Chickadees didn't mind, and it melted my heart watching them flit back and forth in the reeds, chittering and calling out to each other. I wish I had had my "real" camera with me and not just my cell phone so I could have captured some of their antics.  

Native phragmites
Not all phragmites is bad. Native phragmites hugs the coastal and interior wetlands in the Great Lakes region as well. It supports our native wildlife and lays the foundation for a biodiverse habitat, but it can easily be squeezed out by the non-native form. The invasive form creates dense thickets that kill wild rice, cattails, and wetland orchids, which all grow well around native phragmites.

Click here for a post by the Great Lakes Phragmites Collaborative to help you tell native and non-native phragmites apart.

Click here for a wonderful video created by the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council that shows how to differentiate between the two types.

Click here for another site with information on phragmites and other Great Lakes Restoration projects.

Goats to the rescue?
In an article titled "The Goats Fighting America's Plant Invasion," by Joanna Jolly in BBC News Magazine (January 13, 2015), Jolly writes that marine biologist Brian Silliman of Duke University in North Carolina has been working over 20 years to figure out how to eradicate invasive phragmites. He tried insects and other forms of bio-control, but had no luck. Then after a trip to the Netherlands, he saw the plant wasn't a problem there because it was constantly being grazed by animals. Cue the goats! Silliman got to work and found goats can get the job done. In one study, 90% of the phragmites in the test area was eliminated. Click here to read the entire article.

Normally, we look for deer hiding along the boardwalk, but I would love to look for goats...

Click here for more of our Big Water (November at Maumee) posts.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Bristly Greenbrier along the Little Miami River...

Rick and I walked the Little Miami River yesterday afternoon and were surprised when we came across this Jack-and-the-Bean-Stalky type vine. The leaves were huge, and the vine was growing straight up the tree alongside a poison ivy vine...

Large, tropical-looking leaves grow on Bristly Greenbriar (Smilax hispida), a native vine that produces berries eaten by birds and other animals. All the leaves are simple, and there is only one leaf per node along the vine.

With the exception of invasive honeysuckle, all the leaves on the trees in the area were down, which made this large green vine stand out. I'll have to keep an eye on it and see how long the leaves stay green (the vine always stays green).

My cell phone offers a good size comparison for this large leaf. (Looks like a hungry caterpillar visited this summer!)

The sharp prickles start to thin out as you look further up the vine. What looks like a large thorn is the remnants of a leaf stem. Tendrils extend from it and seem to have grown wherever a node was. Higher up the vine (newer growth), the stalk is smooth and green with no prickles.

At the base of the Bristly Greenbrier's green stalk, dark needle-sharp looking bristles of all sizes protrude. Very intimidating...enough to keep any Jack from climbing this beanstalk! 

Thanks to Rick for taking these photos with his cell phone! They look great. I didn't have my camera with me, so Rick stepped in to capture these images for me. I didn't have my binocs either, so I couldn't see if there were any berries at the top of the vine. I photographed a Red-bellied Woodpecker eating greenbrier berries along the Little Miami River a few years ago. It was a different species of greenbrier and the leaves were much smaller. Click here for a link to see the woodpecker eating the berries.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Yellow-rumped Warblers and poison ivy berries...

Butter Butts and poison ivy berries go hand-in-hand in autumn. If you find a large patch of poison ivy berries high in a tree, keep your eyes open, because sooner or later a Yellow-rumped Warbler will happen by and gobble up the tasty treats...

A fall Yellow-rumped Warbler perches in a tangle of poison ivy in a Sycamore tree. Good eats for the wee bird, a winter food supply of waxy berries entices a few of these warblers to overwinter in our area! 

In autumn and early winter, Yellow-rumped Warblers switch their diet from the abundant insects of spring and summer, to the abundant waxy berries of fall and winter. Because this warbler can survive without insects being its primary diet, it is the only spring warbler to overwinter in Ohio. All the other neotropical migrants head south for the winter where the insects still roam free. Not all of the Yellow-rumps migrating through our area stay all winter, however. Most head south as well, but you can usually see a few in the woods on bird outings all winter long. Rick and I have seen them many times along the Little Miami River in the winter.

The tell-tale camera click gives me away every time!
"Really?" our little warbler seems to say. "Can't you see I'm dining on poison ivy, the most delectable of all the berries? No photos, please." 

Oh, what a tangled web...of poison ivy vines! This very old sycamore was covered in hairy poison ivy vines, and the tree hosted several of the migrating (or overwintering) Yellow-rumped Warblers. 

Of course, Yellow-rumped Warblers are not the only birds to feast on poison ivy berries. Woodpeckers love them too. On winter hikes along the Little Miami River, I've watched Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, and a Northern Flicker pluck and eat them one berry at a time.

Being able to absorb and metabolize the fat in the waxy coating on the berry is unique among warblers and allows Yellow-rumped Warblers to be the most northerly wintering wood warblers. can barely see the little "pat of butter" above its tail that gives this sweet warbler its nickname, Butter Butt!

Click here for a previous post that shows a better view of that little pat of butter!

Click here for a look of a Butter-butt in all his springtime glory.

Why can Yellow-rumped Warblers survive on waxy berries in fall and winter?
Almost all the literature on Yellow-rumped Warblers mentions they are hardy warblers that can survive cold winters by eating waxy fruits such as poison ivy berries, bayberries, and wax myrtle, but the literature never explains why, so I did a little searching and found an article that details the warbler's unique digestive abilities in The Auk, 109(2):334-345, 1992 by Allen R. Place and Edmund W. Stiles titled, "Living Off the Wax of the Land: Bayberries and Yellow-rumped Warblers." Click here for the pdf of the article. It explains how Yellow-rumped Warblers are able to efficiently absorb and metabolize the wax that coats many of the fall and winter berries such as bayberry, wax myrtle and poison ivy.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Lincoln's Sparrow in Hocking Hills...

Rick, Matty and I, my brother, sis-in-law and my niece, and my parents all went to Hocking Hills in southeast Ohio last weekend. It was another of our fall trips. We started the tradition back when the kids were tiny little things, and we've kept it up through the years. Now the kids are juniors in college, and the tradition continues. This year we settled on Hocking Hills (an easy 2.5 hr drive) and rented an 8-bedroom "cabin" about 30 minutes away from the action of Old Man's Cave, Rock House, horseback riding, etc. I'm glad we did, because the cabin came with 30 or 40 acres to explore. It had a pond edged in cattails, scrubby fields, wet thickets, brush piles, a small stream in a small gorge, and even a few boggy areas, all of which add up to perfect territory for migrating Lincoln's Sparrows...

A beautiful fall Lincoln's Sparrow perches in a Sycamore sapling along the cattail edges of the pond.

We didn't know what the cabin would look like or what type of land would be around it, so I was really excited when we drove up the long, crunchy gravel drive and saw what was there. Basically, nothing. We were isolated from other people and cabins, which was wonderful! It was so nice to look out and see only trees and fields (my brother booked the cabin and did a great job!). In the back of my mind, I knew Lincoln's Sparrows were at the height of their fall migration through our state, and I was hoping to photograph one. Lincoln's Sparrows are shy birds, so they don't hang out where there is a lot of human activity, which made our lonely little cabin in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains a perfect location. The dashing little bird had always eluded my camera lens, so if ever I was going to be able to photograph one, this would be it.

Mr. Lincoln, you are a grand bird. The fine streaking and buff coloring sets this bird apart from other sparrows...especially song sparrows, which were all around me in the field.

I can't remember who might have been my mom, but someone wanted to know if the bird was named after President Lincoln. I didn't know, so I looked it up. It wasn't. It was named after Thomas Lincoln (1812 - 1883).  At the time, Thomas Lincoln was 21. He and 4 other young men, including Audubon's son, accompanied Audubon on the 1833 Labrador Expedition. Lincoln shot the bird for Audubon to paint for his The Birds of America book. Audubon named the bird after him, at first calling it "Tom's Finch."

Look at that jaunty little cap on his head trimmed with two chestnut stripes (lateral crown stripes), each streaked with black. That's one of the first things I look at when identifying a Lincoln's Sparrow. The black streaking on the head, and the fine dark brown and black streaks on the buff-colored chest and flanks.

A Lincoln's Sparrow in the morning light. 

Audubon's 1833 Labrador Expedition
On June 6, 1833, Audubon, his youngest son, John Woodhouse Audubon, Thomas Lincoln, William Ingalls, George Shattuck, and Joseph Coolidge (sometimes spelled Collide) set out from Eastport, Maine on the schooner "Ripley" commanded by Captain Emery. The trip was a collecting expedition with an emphasis on northern waterbirds for The Birds of America. They returned to Eastport on August 31, 1833. Click here for a map and timeline that shows the routes they took to and from Labrador. This map appears in the article, "Parts Unknown: Audubon's 1833 Labrador Expedition on the Ripley," and is on the Audubon website in "Audubon's Aviary, The Final Flight." The article contains a lot of other interesting historical information, e.g., in a letter Audubon wrote to his son Victor Gifford, we learn:
"I have chartered a schooner called the ‘Ripley,’ commanded by Captain Emery. . . . only a year old, of 106 tons, for which we pay three hundred and fifty dollars per month for the entire use of the vessel with the men. . . .”
While preparing for this expedition, Audubon suffered a stroke in March of 1833. He recovered quickly and continued with the preparations for the trip. For a personal account of the 1833 Labrador Expedition, click here for the pdf of an article from The Auk, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Jan., 1910), pp. 42-52, titled, "Audubon's Labrador Trip of 1833," by Ruthven Deane. In 1903 Deane interviewed Dr. William Ingalls, who was in his 90s and the last surviving member of the party. The article contains a letter written by Ingalls to Deane describing their trip.

Audubon's description of the Lincoln's Sparrow in Labrador
If you go to the Audubon website, you have access to all of the birds and the text from Audubon's great work of art, The Birds of America. Click here for the link. Lincoln's Sparrow is Plate 193, and the text that accompanies it is from the 1833 Labrador Expedition. I always love reading the original text. Here are a few of my favorite experts (click here for the entire text):
"We had been in Labrador nearly three weeks before this Finch was discovered. One morning while the sun was doing his best to enliven the gloomy aspect of the country, I chanced to enter one of those singular small valleys here and there to be seen. The beautiful verdure of the vegetation, the numerous flowers that grew sprinkled over the ground, the half-smothered pipings of some frogs, and the multitudes of mosquitoes and flies of various sorts, seemed to belong to a region very different from any that I had previously explored. But if the view of this favoured spot was pleasing to my eye, how much more to my ear were the sweet notes of this bird as they came thrilling on the sense, surpassing in vigour those of any American Finch with which I am acquainted, and forming a song which seemed a compound of those of the Canary and Wood-lark of Europe. I immediately shouted to my companions, who were not far distant. They came, and we all followed the songster as it flitted from one bush to another to evade our pursuit. No sooner would it alight than it renewed its song; but we found more wildness in this species than in any other inhabiting the same country, and it was with difficulty that we at last procured it. Chance placed my young companion, THOMAS LINCOLN, in a situation where he saw it alight within shot, and with his usual unerring aim, he cut short its career. On seizing it, I found it to be a species which I had not previously seen; and, supposing it to be new, I named it Tom's Finch, in honour of our friend LINCOLN, who was a great favourite among us. Three cheers were given him, when, proud of the prize, I returned to the vessel to draw it, while my son and his companions continued to search for other specimens." 
"The habits of this sweet songster resemble those of the Song Sparrow. Like it, mounted on the topmost twig of the tallest shrub or tree it can find, it chants for hours; or, diving into the thickets, it hops from branch to branch, until it reaches the ground, in search of those insects and berries from which it derives its support. It moves swiftly off when it discovers an enemy; and, if forced to take wing, flies low and rapidly to some considerable distance, jerking its tail as it proceeds, and throwing itself at the foot of the thickest bush it meets. I found it mostly near streams, and always in the small valleys, guarded from the cold winds so prevalent in the country, and which now and then nip the vegetation, and destroy many of the more delicate birds."

Our fall trips
This was a wonderful fall trip. The weather was perfect, the leaves were starting to change, and the birds were fantastic. From horseback riding, to hiking, to looking up at the Milky Way while listening to coyotes, I loved every minute with my family and want to go back...soon! There is a lot to see in Hocking Hills, and a day and a half is not enough time. Click here for highlights from a few of our earlier trips.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Gray Catbird on the boardwalk...

...this is probably one of the most recognized (and ignored) Gray Catbirds on the planet. I saw him in May when I was at Magee Marsh (near Toledo, Ohio) at the Biggest Week in American Birding warbler festival. Every time I was there, so was he...literally on the boardwalk, walking around trying to get everyone's attention. When you're a Gray Catbird surrounded by thousands of brightly colored rare warblers, you have to work a little harder to get any respect...

I saw this sweet catbird during the Biggest Week in American Birding warbler festival.
A beautiful Gray Catbird at Magee Marsh

Hey! Look at me...I'm a neotropical migrant too (just a little larger and grayer). 

This Catbird was not afraid of anyone. He would walk the planks while people looked on and walked past him. Apparently Gray Catbirds are forced to take drastic measures to compete with the glittery, colorful, tiny, fleeting warblers...

When he wasn't on the boardwalk, he dropped down beside it to forage on the ground and in shrubs for insects. He really is quite beautiful, and when he's not mewing, he has a lovely and varied song (mimicking other birds as well). 

Catbirds are great subjects to study to learn wing feathers. Since the birds are large, the feathers are easy to see. On the top of the "stack" are the three tertials, followed by the secondaries, then the primaries (the longest flight feathers) on bottom. 

The spring songbird in the winter gray flannel suit... 

Is it neophilia, or is it gray flannel?
If I heard, "Oh, it's just a catbird," once, I heard it a million times. These poor birds with their sweet mews and songs got no respect along the boardwalk. It's easy to understand, though. In the grips of WARBLERMANIA, the more common songbirds often fall by the wayside. Neophilia is the love of or enthusiasm for what is new or novel, and humans often fall prey to its lure. Many of the spring warblers are fleeting and rare and are definitely novel in our parts. Some of the visitors stay, but others are just stopping off on their long flight north adding to their mystique, but our sweet berry-loving catbirds are brave enough to live among us, becoming commonplace in the process. In the wild, catbirds like swampy, boggy, and soggy areas. You can always find them streamside along the Little Miami River, but they are neotropical migrants that can adapt, and they have taken to suburban and urban backyards packed with berries. We have resident catbirds in our backyard all spring and summer. They come readily to the mulberries and then stick around for the pokeweed berries, so maybe that's why throngs of people move quickly past them to look for the cute and colorful rare warblers...

...or maybe it's just the gray flannel!