Thursday, April 30, 2009

Osprey at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge

Matty, Rick and I really enjoyed our time at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge in south-central Indiana. The refuge is a mix of 7,802 acres of wetland, forest, and grassland, and over 280 species of birds have been found there.

Rick spotted this handsome Osprey overlooking the marsh. Regal and powerful, he perched in a large tree slowly scanning the water below, seemingly keeping an eye on the flock of Blue-winged Teal and American Coots weaving in and out of the shallows. He stayed in the tree for over 45 minutes just observing his territory, nonchalant and unhurried. Finally, he took off in flight and circled around to fly over the lake.

Osprey at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge

In the following photo, you can see the Osprey’s nictitating membrane pulled over his eye. Ospreys, as well as all raptors, have this transparent “third” eyelid to protect their eyes when hunting and eating. They also use it to keep the eyes moist and clean the eyes if something gets in them that causes irritation. The nictitating membrane moves horizontally across the eye instead of vertically like the regular eyelid.

The nictitating membrane looks light blue, but it's transparent. 

Busted! Mr. Osprey knows I'm taking his photo. 
He heard the camera click and turned to face me. 
Those are some penetrating eyes! He didn't care 
and went back to surveying his marshland.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

When "cute" comes up and knocks you on the head…

…you take a picture or two! Matty and I saw this little guy on Monday just off the trail and decided he's one of the cutest things we'd ever seen. We promptly named him Harry Jr.

Harry Jr. was stretched out on a tree snag right in front of 
us. His coloring was beautiful and he seemed so at ease. He 
was by himself and eventually slipped back into the snag.

It was very warm and Harry Jr. was lazing in the heat. 
Eventually he turned towards us. “Hello you two,” 
he seemed to be thinking. “Do you want to play?”

Today I decided to risk the rain at lunch and head over to the Little Miami Bike Trail to see if I could find another migrant, so at 11:30 I hit the trail and almost immediately saw two Prothonotary Warblers flitting around…a male and a female!

The male has that beautiful face and pure 
yellow-orange color I love. I wish this were 
a fabulous photo, but it's more of an ID shot.

The female just isn’t quite as bright as the male, 
but still gorgeous.

While photographing the Prothonotaries, I heard the first silvery liquid tones of a Wood Thrush! He was singing in the same place he claimed last year. I’ve never been able to catch a glimpse of him because he stays deep in the woods on the hill, but he’s a hearty singer and hearing his flutey song is enough for me. Of course, omnipresent through all of this were the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. I’m convinced we must have more of them per square inch than any county in the nation! Our woods around the Little Miami River are thick with them, and their buzzy, chatty song is nonstop along the entire trail. Sometimes you really have to concentrate to hear over them, and I was very excited when I heard a Pine Warbler. I watched for movement and soon I saw him.

Ack! Do you need a magnifying glass to see this one?

The lack of sunshine did nothing to lessen the beauty of the woodland trail, and a fine mist hung in the air, lighting each new green spring leaf with a freshness that would have been missed on a bright sunny day. As I continued to walk the trail I heard nonstop warbler song. Many songs I didn’t yet recognize. I’m working hard to learn how to bird by ear, but my brain doesn’t seem to be working quite as hard as my desire. I can listen to the same song 20 times and not be able to 100% place it in the field; however, some songs I have down, so I’m making progress. The songs of Prothonotary Warblers, Pine Warblers, Red-eyed Vireos, Northern Parulas, just to name a few, are all as well known to me now as Chickadees and Goldfinch…now I only have 600+ more calls to learn.  ;-)

The Little Miami Bike Trail in mist.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dark Night, Busy Night

Last night, as I was visiting some of my favorite blogs, I heard the sweet, soft hoot of a Great-horned Owl outside my open window. “Did I hear what I thought I just heard?” went through my mind. It was 10:56 p.m. I kept listening and then it came again…and again…and again. Yeah! Being such a night owl myself, I truly appreciate nocturnal animals and the quiet stillness of their world, but “stillness” is really misleading. When the sun sets, our minds may slow and become more reflective, but the night creatures are just waking up. The nocturnal animals, insects and plants have jobs to do and “busy” is the only thing they know in the hours lit by the moon.

By 11:07 the Great Horned Owl was still calling, but…he was further away. At 11:15 I could still hear him, but each repetition of his song was getting fainter. For an owl, 11:15 is early. The last time I heard the Great Horned Owl outside my window was January 12, 2009 at 2:06 a.m. It was very cold that night. I remember because I opened the windows for better listening only to get a face full of stinging icy air! By 11:21 I could no longer hear the owl, but I had high hopes he would be back later during his busy night. Well, the owl did not come back, but a raccoon did, and so did a couple of night-owl ducks! Here’s a quick video of their visit:

Raccoon Eats Red's Peanuts and Night-owl Ducks Take a Dip from Kelly Riccetti on Vimeo.

So when you feel that magic stillness of the moon and stars, and the crickets and fireflies are keeping you company, remember there’s a lot going on out there and the dark night is also a busy night! 

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Little Miami Bike Trail and Red-eyed Vireos

When Matty got home from school today, we decided to head over to the Little Miami River to see if we could catch any spring migrants. The weather was warm (mid 80s) and the sun was shining. The weather report said today would be the last of the summer-like warmth and the rains were moving in, so we thought we had better get out to bird while the getting was good! As soon as we hit the trail, we found Blue-gray Gnatcatchers all around us singing, chatting, scolding and basically being cute, but soon our attention was diverted by the song of a Red-eyed Vireo. Matty used the bird's non-stop singing to hone in on its location and then watched for movement. He seemed to have a sixth sense for Red-eyes today, logging four sightings by the end of the walk. We also saw a Black and White Warbler, a Prothonotary Warbler, a Black-throated Green Warbler (another of Matty's finds found through his "bird" sense), a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a Hummingbird, and two Northern Rough-winged Swallows (Life Birds for us), plus all the usual woodland suspects, including a Pileated Woodpecker...and three deer!

The two lone Northern Rough-winged Swallows 
were playing just beyond Matty. They chased each 
other and were feeding low over the water, much 
too fast and small to be photographed.

As we watched the swallows, two Canada Geese came honking in, flying wing to wing down the corridor and seeming to announce to all the woodland creatures that, "We have arrived, so please, everyone, look at us. We are here, and we are loud. Yes, we are important. Again, we say, look at us!" It was fun to watch them fly past us at eye level, honking and so close that we could almost feel the breeze from their wings as they flapped past.

"Mabel" and "Floyd" on the wing continued 
to honk all the way up the river...

Matty spotted the second Red-eye from the river bank shortly after the clatter and ruckus of the geese faded away, so we climbed up the hill to get closer and actually got a fairly decent shot.

Look at that lovely red eye...

...and it's red on the other side too!

...yes, you are a gorgeous bird with a very pretty song!

We were starting to get hungry, so we headed for home. As we walked along, we heard the unmistakeable crunch, crunch, crunch of leaves and sticks underfoot and started looking for deer. There were three, and they didn't seem to mind us, so we stayed and watched for a while until they decided to move on.

See you later little deer!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Yellow-rumped Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets at the Little Miami Bike Trail

...let's jump back to last Thursday when my mom, Ena and I went birding at the Little Miami Bike Trail. In addition to finding the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher's nest, we saw lots of birds. Especially cute were the Yellow-rumped Warblers, Golden-crowned Kinglets and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

One of the Yellow-rumps. I heard his call 
first, then we spotted him. He was very active!

I love it when they narrow right in on the 
sound of the camera click and look you 
in the eye through the camera lens.

...and then he looks a little harder, 
focusing on me while I focus on him.

...and a cute little sideway glance, like he's 
trying to figure out what that clicky sound is.

This little Ruby-crowned Kinglet was foraging with a couple of little Yellow-crowned Kinglets.

Okay camera lady, here's my profile for easy ID of my field marks!

...and from behind...

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Warblers and a Spring Bird Walk at the Cincinnati Nature Center

This morning I woke up bright and early and joined a bird walk at the Cincinnati Nature Center. Right off the bat, we saw two gorgeous Baltimore Orioles in the tree by the parking lot. Their orange plumage color was spectacular -- a combination of fresh new feathers at the height of their color and the warm 8:00 a.m. sun. What a fabulous photo it would have made. I had decided for this walk I was going to bird like I used to bird, and that was with no camera...just a journal and a pencil. Ack...these orioles alone would have been worth the effort of lugging the big camera around. Also near the parking lot was another nest under construction by Blue-gray Gnatcatchers! Great luck finding a nest Thursday and Saturday.

It was a wonderful trip. I met a lot of nice birders, and our leader, Dave, had a phenomenal ear and was very knowledgeable. We started by hearing a Scarlet Tanager off in the distance. Soon we saw a Chipping Sparrow, a Downy, a Brown Thrasher singing up a storm, many Field Sparrows, a Song Sparrow and all the usual suspects too. Finally, we stumbled across an immature Red-tailed Hawk on the roof of the old cabin. We were so close, but he didn't seem to care. He posed for a long time, eventually swooping down to a Tree Swallow's nest box and perching on top. The Tree Swallows, of course, became quite agitated and began dive bombing the poor thing over and over.  At one point, the mama Tree Swallow hovered right over our group chirping out her troubles, seeming to ask for help in ridding her nest box of That Big Thing on top. Eventually he left, but not before landing in a tree well lit by the morning sun, and once again, striking beautiful poses, which, I know, would have made the best photos ever, and I will probably never again find a Red-tailed Hawk in such a perfect pose with such perfect light, so close that a 70-200mm lens would have been just fine.  ;-)

While watching the gorgeous red-tail, we could hear an Eastern Towhee demanding that we "Drink our teeeeeea!" and so started looking for it. Eventually we found him in a tree claiming his territory. What a gorgeous bird he was. Then not 15 feet from the towhee, Dave heard an Indigo Bunting and we soon found three males singing and foraging in a tree. They were migrating or just beginning to settle in without a claimed territory, otherwise, one would not have tolerated the other two in his space.

Two birders from Michigan dropped in and asked us what we had seen in the way of warblers. We explained we had just started a short while ago, but I mentioned I had briefly caught sight of a Yellow-rumped Warbler in the woods by the front trail. She said, "I've heard a few...I don't bother looking for those..." (demonstrating with her facial muscles it was a junk bird). Whoa.......yikes......I had never heard anyone say anything like that before. I seem to hang with birders that love hearing and looking at all birds (with a few exceptions, and you know which birds those are). "Um...oh....well, I'm an artist and I just like looking at their color and markings," I quietly replied, which is a good example of the different types of birder lovers out there--researchers, artists, writers, photographers, listers, and bird snobs ;-)   

Not 3 minutes after that, we walked on and a Black-Throated Green Warbler started to sing!! (I must admit, it is more exciting to hear and see a bird not quite as abundant as a Yellow-rumped Warbler--especially because it was a Life Bird for me, but I still LOVE my Yellow-rumps and always take the time to look for them when I hear their call.) The Black-throated Green Warbler stayed around for quite a bit foraging in the tree looking very dapper and NEW, and then immediately behind him, a Blue-winged Warbler started singing and eventually dropped very low in a tree not 10 feet from me just under eye level. Wow! What a cutie....and so close he was blurred in my binocs and I had to watch him with my own two eyes!

We crossed the street and a lovely Rose-breasted Grosbeak let us know he was there with his beautiful song and we soon found his rosy patch lit by the sun high in the tree. As we watched him, a Great-crested Flycatcher flew by and started singing. High in the sky, a Red-shouldered Hawk was looking for something to eat. Further up the road, Dave heard a Nashville Warbler, and we had to do a bit of searching to find him, tramping through a mucky, wet, sinking, mudflat (which was kind of fun to squish through). This bird really melted my heart. His little white eye ring and soft coloring were beautiful. After watching him for a while, he finally decided eats were better in a tree not within our viewing range, so we headed back to the road. When we came into a clearing, I looked up and saw another across the road. We were probably about 20 feet....close enough to see him with the naked eye, but far enough to see him really well with the binocs. That was a great surprise, and maybe added to my affection for my NEW Life Bird. Dave said the Nashville Warbler probably arrived early this morning and should be a daily bird for the next couple of weeks in our area.

We crossed the street to reach the great field, and Field Sparrows again were everywhere. I caught sight of one with a bill stuffed full of nesting material. It's really hard to beat the sweetness of a pink bill tightly clamped down on grass strands and a tiny twig. Dave soon heard the call of a Prairie Warbler that was very vocal, but pretty far off. He decided to whip out the iPod and use Bird Jam to lure him in. After a few calls, the warbler decided to come over and investigate and he landed right above us. Yes.......another warbler within feet of me and my non-existent camera lens, but that's okay. I actually wrote about my birds today, which is what I always used to do before I started blogging. I wish I had had time for sketching, but I didn't even try because the group was on the move in between sightings (and I kind of prefer sketching alone), but I have their visions in my mind, and will probably paint a few over the next couple of days. I like both ways of journaling and regular journaling (comparing the two sounds like a good blog entry for a rainy day).

As we were heading for home, Dave caught sight of a Hermit Thrush probably getting ready to head north. Hermit Thrushes can be found in our area all winter and head out when the Wood Thrushes show up for the spring and summer. Soon we were back at the visitor's center (and I was getting very hungry). If you count all the "regular" birds, such as the Downies, Cardinals, Goldfinches, etc., our total came to 33, which isn't bad for a couple hours of birding on a Saturday morning. 

...I almost forgot! For the past three mornings, I have heard a White-throated Sparrow singing in my yard. Finally! I don't think this is a bird from our winter flock that went AWOL, but maybe he is. I assume he's a new guy migrating through. Either way works for me as long as I can hear his sweet spring call. I'll try to stick to photos in the future so you don't have to read so much the next time!!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher couple building a nest

What a gorgeous day today was. Sunshine and warmer temperatures were exactly what we needed! To celebrate, I picked up my mom (Joni) and Ena and headed over to the Little Miami Bike Trail for a bit of birding. The bike trail is a wonderful place to catch spring migrants. It follows the Little Miami River and is heavily wooded. It seems to be a magnet for the neotropical migrants, and you never know what might show up. 

Today we saw and heard numerous Northern Parulas, several Yellow-rumped Warblers, and tons of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. Additionally we saw several Golden-crowned Kinglets, one Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a Belted Kingfisher, plus all the usual suspects you would hope to find in a woodland, including Downy, Hairy, Red-Bellied, and Pileated Woodpeckers. As we were returning, I looked up and saw a male Blue-gray Gnatcatcher with a small bit of something in his bill fly onto a branch and then walk up to a nest!! The nest was gorgeous. It reminded me of a hummingbird's nest because it was entirely encased in lichens. It was a perfect little cup on a horizontal branch, just like it's described in the literature. We stopped and watched, and soon the female joined him and the couple worked together to build the nest.

This sweet couple worked diligently bringing 
little bits to the nest. They both worked equally.

While the female is off getting a piece of seed down, lichen, 
spider silk, or some other small item, the male is on the nest, 
moving around and adjusting his contribution. You can tell 
he is the male because of the black "eye brow" over his eyes.

The male continues to work in the nest.

The female is surveying the progress. She 
decides the nest needs a little more of something.... she comes back with a teeny, tiny bit of lichen in her bill.

She then settles down in the nest and carefully 
tacks the lichen to the outside decorations.

Here the male also places a small bit of lichen on the nest. 

The male and female totally ignored us down below, however, 
this shot looks like he's giving me that crazy bird eye they are 
all so good at giving. With never ending trips back and 
forth carrying small bits of nesting material, they were 
like a nest-building tag team!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Baby Blue pops up at the heronry!

Today the sun came out and the rain stopped (finally), so I ran over to the heronry for a bit. It was around noon and not much was happening. All the nests had mamas and papas hunkered down and resting. One nest had a heron standing in it, and at first, I thought he or she was turning the eggs or adjusting the nest, but then suddenly, Baby Blue popped up! What a cutie!

The baby was not very big, and as I studied the other nests, herons would occasionally stand and thier babies would pop up. All were small; however, I could hear a chorus of baby herons and was surprised at the light, froggy sound and how far it carried. Yeah! Things will really start picking up at the heronry now (as long as the leaves stay tucked away!).

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Clifty Falls State Park Wildflowers

Another attempt at movie making using iMovie on the Mac. It's really fun!  I need a macro lens. I took these photos with a 70-200mm lens with the 2x teleconverter still on...standing several feet away from the flowers...not ideal, but it worked!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Turkey Vultures raising and spreading their wings in the sun...

Just before dinner, I went out on our balcony at the Clifty Inn and saw these three Turkey Vultures just hanging out around the fire pit. The scene took me by surprise and was sort of comical. To see these huge birds walking around on the ground, preening now and then, and basically acting cool, was like looking over the fence in the Munster's back yard!

Dude, what's for dinner?

This is the reason you always use a tablecloth in TV country...

The sun was out, but just barely. It was mostly under a cloud, but suddenly, the cloud cover broke and the sun burst forth at full strength. Like a choreographed dance, the three birds immediately turned around so their backs were to the sun and lifted their the same time and in the same way. 

...very cool to watch, but sort of creepy too! It looks 
like there is something really important in the fire pit...

I was focused on the middle bird, and after I clicked my 
camera, he turned his head around an looked at me. 
I wonder if he was the same one giving me the eye in 
the previous flight photos?

Beak Bit
It was fun to watch the vultures because as soon as the sun would go back under a cloud, they would drop their wings, turn around and start preening or walking around. Then again, as the sun came out, they would turn their backs and lift and spread their wings, fully extended. Matty wondered what they were doing, and I know other birds will use the sun to heat up parasites (mites) in their feathers to kill them, so I assumed the vultures were doing the same thing. Last night I did a little research and found, yes, they use the sun to kill parasites (or to heat up the mites to get them to move so they could be more easily preened off), but they also raise or spread their wings for other reasons.

To kill the bacteria that coats their wings after eating carrion. After the Turkey Vultures eat, they are often covered with nasty bacteria from their decaying meal. The sun's ultraviolet rays effectively kill the bacteria on the wings. Turkey vultures can eat decaying and contaminated meat because of enzymes and bacteria in their digestive systems. As a means of defense, Turkey Vultures will projectile vomit just like Great Blue Herons. Throwing up fish is one thing, but throwing up rotten, decayed and contaminated meat is another. Yuck!

To warm themselves on cold mornings. Turkey vultures can lower their body temp to conserve energy at night, but in the morning, they need to warm up to be able to fly. The outstretched wings absorb the heat from the solar energy and soon warm up enough to take off. When the TVs take off, they use their incredible sense of smell to detect carrion. Turkey Vultures can even find natural gas leaks because the additive to the normally odorless gas (ethyl mercaptan) is a chemical similar to the one let off by decaying meat.  

Turkey vultures eat mostly carrion and therefore do Mother Nature a great service. Their feet and beaks are weak, and they can't carry food like a raptor or kill like one. Their cousins, the Black Vulture have stronger beaks, and sometimes kill food. Turkey Vultures never circle a dying animal. They circle and ride thermals, and seek dead things by picking up the odor.

For close-ups of a Turkey Vulture, click here

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hiking the creek beds at Clifty Falls and climbing over downed trees…

We arrived at the park around noon on Thursday and immediately hopped on Trail 3. Matty and I wore boots so we could walk in the creek. Rick planned on sticking to the banks and taking a few photos. The first thing we noticed was yellow tape blocking off a footbridge crushed by a fallen tree at Hoffman Falls. This didn't bother us because we planned on walking the creek upstream. In September of 2008 remnants of Hurricane Ike swept through the Midwest  leaving downed trees and major destruction in its path. In Cincinnati, many of us were without electricity for seven to ten days (some even longer). It was clear the people in Madison, Indiana had also experienced the hurricane-force winds (which is a very strange sensation when you’re smack dab in the middle of the continent with nary an ocean in sight!). We spoke to a woman from Madison who said further damage occurred this February when the ice storm swept through toppling already weakened trees.

Everywhere we went, we saw toppled trees 
and massive exposed roots.

The birds loved hoping in and out of the root balls 
and made the most of the situation by hiding in the 
dead leaves and branches. Just behind the limbs 
in the dark crevices of the rock overhang a mama 
Phoebe was making a nest. She and her mate 
kept us company while we climbed over this tree.

We walked the creek above Hoffman Falls upstream 
to this gorgeous, gentle fall that cascades over rocky 
steps. Over eons, the water has carved out a rock bowl, 
and it feels like you've stumbled into a secret cove. The 
splash of the water echos all around you adding to 
the excitement of the discovery. If you have boots on 
you can walk to the base of the falls and experience 
the bowl sensation with no problem. 

You can find some fairly rugged hiking here, and 
climbing over the downed trees just adds to the fun. 
Here Matty and I are working our way back down 
to the falls from the "exposed" side.

Just downstream from the Secret Falls (that's our 
name, we don't know if it has a real name) this 
huge tree blocks the creek bed. Getting through 
and around it is like solving a puzzle. To get an idea 
of its size, look closely, and you'll find Matty and me 
standing under it in the water near the rock wall.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Turkey Vultures at Clifty Falls, Indiana

When I think of Clifty Falls, I think of Turkey Vultures. Years ago, Rick and I were there and we saw over 40 vultures spiraling over the Ohio River at the same time. It was an amazing sight. A sturdy observation tower just past the visitor's center offers perfect viewing. This time, there weren't as many TVs soaring past (it's spring, previously we were there for their return in the fall), but I was able to see them from our 4th floor balcony which was fun! They were almost eye level at times and quite amazing. The most I saw flying together on Thursday was 14. They were spiraling and soaring out over the Ohio River looking very cool...and impressive. I also saw a Black Vulture, which was a lifer for me. 

It was late afternoon, and this guy kept soaring 
past our balcony. He seems to be giving me the 
eye, which is a bit unnerving. Thank goodness 
I like TVs and think they are sort of cute.

I like this series of photos because you can see the 
shift in color of the sky. The first photo the sun was 
more at my back. As he soared past, he flew more 
into the sun. You can watch the sky get less blue. 

...he still is giving me the eye. I was tired 
after a big day of hiking, but not that tired!

I'm still learning how to shoot using light. If you haven't seen it already, for a nice lesson on shooting blue skies without filters, see this post on Shooting my Universe by Steve. 

A few more flight photos. He had turned around and was on his way back...