Friday, September 30, 2011

I just finished reading "The Big Year..."

...for the fourth time! Can you tell I like this book? I remember the first time I saw it. I was in Barnes & Noble, and it was sitting on a table in the entryway. Its cover jacket art was gorgeous--a tern sitting on a pair of binoculars! "Whoa...what is this?" went through my mind. The title was "The Big Year: a tale of man, nature and fowl obsession," and it was by Mark Obmascik. I bought it on the spot, brought it home, and couldn't put it down. I loved it! What birder wouldn't? The book is about three passionate birders who take a year of their lives to scramble all over North America looking for birds--all of them--the 675 or so "regular" species that live in North America plus all the "rarities" or accidentals and vagrants that wander in too. It's an intense competition of will and stamina fueled by sacrifice, obsession, and money.

Over the years I bought several copies of the book to give as gifts to friends, and I loaned my book out several times too, including just recently, so when Kristin from Free Press contacted me to review the movie tie-in edition of the book I was happy. I wanted to read the book one more time before I saw the movie, so the timing was perfect. The fourth time around I loved the book just as much as the first three. Maybe more...

The new book cover for the tie-in edition to The Big Year movie!

I had to laugh at myself when I looked at the new cover, and I wondered how many other birders did the same thing I did...check out the binoculars to see what the stars were toting. (If you're curious, it looks like Owen Wilson, who plays Sandy Komito, is carrying Zeiss...Steve Martin, who plays Al Levantin, is holding Swarovski...and Jack Black, who plays OHIO birder, Greg Miller, prefers Kowa.) And I hate to admit it, but I also gave the American Robin hanging off Steve Martin's bins the once over (did you?). He's a bit too small, but I know in the movie the birds are going to be spot on because Greg Miller was a bird adviser for the film and worked very hard to keep the birding real. How do I know? I actually got to meet Greg Miller at the Midwest Birding Festival a few weeks ago. He gave a presentation on his birding adventures during his Big Year and also talked about his experiences with the film. Better than that, though, I stayed in the same hotel as Greg and spent part of the first evening talking with him! Wow! Greg is incredibly nice and kind, and I really enjoyed meeting him...

Greg Miller and I in the lobby of Hotel Lakeside at the Midwest Birding Symposium.

...before you see the movie--or after, make sure you read the book! The movie is based on the book, but it's a little different. I've heard the names have been changed and from what I've seen in the previews, so have a few of the adventures.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

My hummingbirds are not always angelic...

...sometimes they perch with an undeniably honked-off and irritable look in their eyes defying any other humming-type bird to venture forth and try...just get a sip of the sweet, sweet nectar...

Painting 172. Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird Guarding the Nectar

Rough Pencil sketch from my sketchbook of a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird

...I drew this sketch in the car while waiting for Matty. My ref was a poor-quality printout of a photo I took a couple of years ago. As a result, I couldn't see any feather detail, so I totally made up the feather configuration, choosing "poetic license" to give the feel of detail. Since this little female had such a fierce look in her eyes...and she was "poetic" in her own way, I thought D. H. Lawrence's poem "Humming-bird," where he depicts a hummingbird at the dawn of creation as a "jabbing, terrifying monster," was the perfect fit. When I watch our hummingbirds fight viciously over their food source in the summer, I totally get his image...

I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.

Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.

I believe there were no flowers, then,
In the world where the humming-bird flashed ahead of creation.
I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.

Probably he was big
As mosses, and little lizards, they say, were once big.
Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.
We look at him through the wrong end of the long telescope of Time,
Luckily for us.

by D. H. Lawrence
(excerpted from "The Little Big Book of Birds," by Tabori and Fried -- originally from "Birds, Beasts and Flowers," 1923)
...this is painting 72 in this year's 100 painting challenge...painting 172 in my 5 year, 500 painting challenge.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Buck Moth caterpillar (Hemileuca maia) - another “stinging” hair caterpillar!

Back in July when Matty and I were at Shawnee State Park, I was sitting under a huge oak tree watching a snake move through the grass. I leaned back, propping myself up on my arms, and glanced back by my hand. About a half inch from my little finger was a caterpillar decorated with what looked like spiky white snowflakes. I quickly moved my hand out of his path. We learned years ago what can happen when you touch fuzzy wuzzy cool looking caterpillars--ouch (click here for a post about the fuzzy yellow American Dagger Moth Caterpillar)! Since then, any unidentified caterpillar is labeled “stranger danger” and is hands off until identified. Jenny had a field guide in the nature center and quickly discovered what he was...a Buck Moth Caterpillar (Hemileuca maia). Good thing I moved my hand. Just like our friend the American Dagger Moth, the Buck Moth is covered in hollow hairs/spines that are attached to poison glands. Simply brushing against one of those hairs is enough to break the hair and have its contents spill directly into your skin. The toxins in the venom can cause painful red welts and even vomiting.

Buck Moth Caterpillar (Hemileuca maia)
You can just look at all these bells and whistles and tell this guy packs a punch--a purpley-black body covered in yellow dots, spiky white and yellow barbs, a maroonish, dark red head...and to top that off, red and black multi-branched spines (that look like really sharp thorns)! of the kids lifted this prickly guy on a stick to take him to the edge of the lawn at the nature center. We didn't want him to get squished...and we didn't want him to unintentionally leave any of those barbs in someone's skin!

...check out those dark spikes...makes me think of tiny locust tree thorns. (I only had my big lens with me. I wish I had had my macro so I could have gotten a close-up of those barbs. You can find a nice close-up here, though.)

...the red abdominal prolegs add to this guy's snappy attire!

When I saw this caterpillar in June, he was probably looking for a place to burrow into the ground to transform into a pupae. The pupal stage lasts through summer and according to the Ohio State University Entomology fact sheet (found here), Buck Moth adults emerge about now and will fly through Indian summer in October. Their name, "Buck" Moth, derives from the fact their flying season is the same time as the rutting season of the whitetail deer.

Buck Moth Caterpillars are very famous in New Orleans...
Buck Moth Caterpillars are relatively rare in our town, but apparently they are well know in the Big Easy, where the mass dropping of Buck Moth Caterpillars from Live Oak trees onto unsuspecting victims below is an annual right of passage! The story is here and here and here!

Duct tape to the rescue!
I read this quick fix on lots of sites: to remove the broken spines from your skin, apply and repeatedly strip duct tape (or Scotch tape) over the affected area. Once the venom is in, though, there's not much you can do. Ice helps and many sites recommend a paste of baking soda and water (here).

Saturday, September 24, 2011

21 seconds in a Sanderling's life...

8:18:07 - 8:18:28 are the time stamps from the first photo in this series to the last--21 seconds. That's what's cool about photography--freezing time, and then going back to study it. When you shoot into a flock of birds, you never know what you'll see. Even though the flock moves and acts as one, the individuals don't. They preen and stare and loaf and sleep, all at different times...and they watch. Different eyes at different times are watching in different directions. All it takes is one false move on the photographer's part, and one bird in the flock to witness it, and they are gone en masse. In the following series, two Cute Sanderlings watch me surreptitiously as they go about their business...until at the end when Cute Sanderling #2 seems a little more direct...

"...for Heaven's sake, haven't you seen enough? Move along camera lady..."

I photographed this small flock of Sanderlings while birding on the shores of Lake Erie at Magee Marsh with Rob Ripma (The Nutty Birder), Rob Mortensen (Birding is Fun!), Cack, Lulu, and Corky. Click here for an earlier post of this outing and close-ups of a Sanderling's feathers.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Great Blue Lobelia

...right after photographing the Red-legged Grasshopper, I shifted to the right where a surprising splash of blue caught my eye. Several tall stalks of Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) were pushing up through the grasses, and in the fading light the blue petals seemed to hang in the air, ignoring the fact the sun was not there to light them, and producing their own glow instead...

Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)
This plant has so much to offer--striking blue-purple flowers, interesting striped patterns, and strangely shaped petals!

Great Blue Lobelia flowers are made up of two petals. The upper petal (lip) splits into two lobes (which remind me of rabbit ears), and the lower petal is striped with white, and splits into three lobes...

Leaf of Lobelia siphilitica
The leaves of Great Blue Lobelia are lance-like and pointed and can be 2-6" long, growing alternate along the stem. The plants grow 1-3' high, preferring wet woodland edges, moist thickets, and swamps. "(Newcomb's Wildflower Guide," by Lawrence Newcomb, and "Wildflowers of Ohio" by Stan Tekiela).

...tall spikes of Great Blue Lobelia push through grasses and other plants bordering the Little Miami River.

...a beautiful flower with medicinal uses too!

Great Blue Lobelia as a medicinal herb...
I didn't know much about lobelia and its history, so I thought I'd take a look. I found tons of references in books and on the Internet about its medicinal uses through the years. The most repeated entries referred to its name. Native Americans, especially the Iroquois, used this plant to treat syphilis. Settlers sent it back to Europe for use, but the physicians there had little luck with the plant and abandoned it. However, the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus believed the claims of its efficacy and therefore labeled it Lobelia syphilitica (source: this info is repeated on many sites and is in several books, included a few of my wildflower guides, but Rosanna King has a detailed explanation of it here). King goes on to write that the failure in Europe is probably because Native Americans used lobelia with other herbs, such as cherry bark and New Jersey Tea (much of the information in King's article references "A Treasury of American Indian Herbs," by Virginia Scully. It looks like an interesting read. I might want to get it!)

It appears, however, that the plant's real fame came from Samuel Thomson (1769-1843), who at the age of four discovered its primary use, that of an emetic. This little story made me laugh... One day little Samuel stumbled across the beautiful plant and admired it, but his curiosity got the best of him, and he decided to pick it and have a taste. After chewing a few of the pods he promptly threw up. That alone is not funny...but what he did afterwards made me chuckle. From then on, he'd talk his friends into eating a pod or two just to watch them vomit (I can just see a little boy doing that)! Thomson went on to become a gifted healer, pushing aside the accepted methods of blood-letting and the application of mercury and other metals, and replacing them with the benefits of lobelia (source, King, here). Thomson also used the spice cayenne with lobelia, holding that cayenne stimulated the circulation and lobelia mildly sedated and relaxed the body (source, "Lobelia - Native American Wonder Herb," here).

Through the years lobelia was used as a cure-all herb and a catalyst herb working in conjunction with other herbs. It proved effective as an expectorant and an antispasmodic and was used to help people suffering from asthma. It's common names reflected its uses and included emetic weed, emetic herb, puke weed, vomit weed, vomit wort, gag root, eye-bright, asthma weed, wild tobacco (it has a nicotine-like alkaloid, lobeline), and Indian tobacco. It also had the common name of bladder pod, named after the shape of the seed pods (King).

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The grasshopper with the beautiful red legs...

Late Sunday afternoon after getting home from the bird symposium, I headed over to the Little Miami River to decompress and look for a few migrating warblers. Almost immediately an American Redstart and a female Chestnut-sided Warbler flew into view, and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo sang his knocking song the entire time I was there. Lots of other birds made an appearance too, including all the usual suspects, but this little grasshopper is what really caught my attention, so I hunkered down to watch and photograph it...

...a Red-legged Locust (Melanoplus femur-rubrum)--also know as a Red-legged Grasshopper, cleans its antenna. I never really noticed how short a grasshopper's antenna (or "horns") were compared to the size of its body. Lang Elliott points this out in his book, "The Songs of Insects," where he mentions antenna size is a distinguishing characteristic between katydids ("long-horned" grasshoppers) and locusts ("short-horned" grasshoppers).

Red-legged Grasshoppers are members of the genus Spur-throated Grasshoppers (Melanoplus).

Spur-throated Grasshoppers do not sing. I read that fact in "The Songs of Insects," by Lang Elliott. I had always assumed locusts sang just like katydids, crickets and cicadas. Elliott clued me in...only Slant-faced Grasshoppers fiddle and sing (or stridulate). Their songs are "soft and muffled" (Elliott, 178). They fiddle by rubbing the inner surface of their hind femurs (upper leg) against the edges of their forewings. The spines you see along the tibia of the Red-legged Grasshopper are for gripping, not stridulating.

...when I arrived at the river, the skies were heavy with grey clouds and darkness was seeping in among the grasses. I didn't know if the photos would turn out. They are not great, but they are good enough to capture the grasshopper's coloring. With red legs, a yellowish underbody, and a greenish head, she's hard to miss...

...striated muscles are bound in the beautiful herringbone pattern that makes up the hind leg (femur). Those muscles fuel the incredible jump that allows grasshoppers to cover lots of space with what looks like little effort.

Note After sniffing around the Internet a bit, I found a very interesting and helpful site detailing how a grasshopper jumps--seems the mechanics of a catapult are at play. Click here for a link to a video of the catapult in the knee of a grasshopper (by the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, UK). Click here for the first page in a step-by-step series explaining how a grasshopper jumps (keep clicking "next" to read the entire explanation--also by the University of St. Andrews). If humans had the same capabilities, we would be able to fling ourselves over 40 feet away.

...Red-legged Grasshopper (Locust) backlit in the fading afternoon light.

I love the little claws at the end of the talus that help them climb.

Have you ever seen a grasshopper poop?
...and did you ever think you'd see a title like that on my blog? I wasn't going to include these photos, but Matty convinced me "the news must be reported mom, and a grasshopper pooping is news...especially to my friends." it is, for Matty's friends and other boys 12-16. Until Sunday, I had no idea what grasshopper excrement looked like because I'd never seen one I guess you really do learn something new every day...

p.s. A neat book I found on the web is called "The Grasshopper Book," by Wilfrid S. Bronson. It was written for children in 1894. Click here for the preview. I loved the language and the artwork and am going to try to find it. Here is a brief excerpt:
Finally there comes a fair spring day when the lucky little grasshoppers hatch. The majority of insects begin life as caterpillars or maggots or grubs of some sort, eat furiously for a while, and then sink into a deep sleep during which all the alterations come about that change them from infants into adults. Their baby state is very different from the grown-up state. A caterpillar looks nothing like a butterfly, a maggot isn't like a fly, a grub bears no resemblance to a beetle or an ant. But a baby grasshopper is a grasshopper from the start. Lacking only wings, it is otherwise like its parents, except, of course, in its proportions. In common with many other infant animals, it has a head and legs which look a lot too large for its body. Besides the droll appearance this creates, it even shares a little of their look of charming innocence.

Red-legged Grasshopper from behind. Even at this angle, the grasshopper has beautiful markings...

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Sanderlings on the shore of Lake Erie at the Midwest Birding Symposium

I am having fun and am loving it at the Midwest Birding Symposium!
...yesterday morning the two Robs--Rob Ripma (The Nutty Birder) and Rob Mortensen (Birding is Fun), Cack (Rob's mom), Lulu (Rob's friend), and Corky (a college professor I had back in 1980) convinced me to get up at 5:00 a.m. and head over to Magee Marsh with them to catch a few warblers. Yikes! This is what good birders do, but when it comes to daybreak, I'm a bad birder. 6:15 is about the earliest I can get up. All my family and friends know this--I'm a night owl and have been my entire life. When I started first grade, my mom had to give me a cup of coffee to get me out of bed and help me function. But........I can and will do anything for birds, so up I got...and for good measure I set my alarm for 4:55. It was a restless night for me. From 1:00 a.m. (when I went to bed) to 4:55 a.m. when I got up, I dreamt about having to bird in my P.J.s because I couldn't find any regular clothes. My P.J.s have ducks all over them, so I really shouldn't have worried. It would have been just fine to bird in them... :-)

We arrived at Magee early, and I'm totally sold on the merits of a 5:00 a.m. wake-up call. We saw lots of warblers, thrushes, and other birds. Before we left Magee to go back to the symposium, we walked over to Lake Erie to see what was there. Sweet little Sanderlings were foraging on the shore...

Sanderling (Calidris alba) in winter (basic) plumage.
I fell in love with the plumage on these sweet birds...pattern and color are breathtaking, and when you add in their wave-chasing antics, mesmerizing!

...a Sanderling foraging along the shore of Lake Erie at Magee Marsh.

...beautiful profile, beautiful colors, beautiful pattern...

Hey little fellow...I dig your feathers!

Video of Sanderlings in basic winter plumage preening along the Lake Erie shore at Magee Marsh.

p.s....I am going into training. I have two years to reset my clock. By the next symposium, 5:00 a.m. will be nothing!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Lake Erie...

I made it to Lakeside and have settled in, and I've already met four new birding friends! Right now everyone is out on the sunset birding cruise, but I sometimes get seasick, so I opted out. Instead, I'm sitting in the lobby of Hotel Lakeside putting together a video of Lake Erie--oh boy!

Lake Erie is definitely makes me think more of an ocean than a lake...

Lake Erie - Lakeside, OH from Kelly Riccetti on Vimeo.

It really is a special environment here at the Midwest Birding Symposium. There are so many people around who all LOVE birds. Have you ever been talking to a non-birding friend about an amazing bird, only to notice his or her eyes are slowly starting to glaze over.........that never happens here! Everyone is always excited about the birds!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Where did you get the photos of Billy Idol?" what Rick said when he came into my office and saw this puffed-up Cattle Egret on my screen...

"Pinckney," I responded casually. "He was great. Very polite...put on a fab show."

I've heard of dogs looking like their owners, but never birds looking like celebs...

...he was dancing with himself here.

The famous mohawk... to the next gig.

...photographed at Ibis Pond on Pinckney Island, near Hilton Head, South Carolina 6/8/11. For other Cattle Egret posts, click here.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Scripta elegans...

Scripta elegans is the species and subspecies name of the Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans). You don't need to speak Latin to get the gist of those two words...elegant markings, but I looked it up in Matty's Latin dictionary just to make sure, and for good measure I also checked "Scientific and Common Names of the Reptiles and Amphibians of North America," by Ellin Beltz, here. Scripta is Latin for "written or marked" and probably refers to the beautiful markings on the carapace (shell). Elegans is Latin for "elegant" and probably refers to the lovely and colorful red stripe that runs behind the eye. This little turtle's name says it all...

Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)

Although T. script elegans is the most common species of turtle introduced into nonindigenous ponds and rivers (due to pet releases worldwide since the 1930s), this little turtle was found near the mouth of the Great Miami River and is therefore probably part of an indigenous population (click here for the USGS map showing their native range). Do you remember the 60's children's book, "Let's Get Turtles," by Millicent Selsam. I had that book, and if I remember correctly Red-eared Sliders were the stars (but that's just a guess, I need to find a copy and check it out). We didn't keep a pet turtle, but lots of friends did. I wonder how many of those "dime store" pets ended up in local ponds when they outgrew their little round glass aquariums?

Here in the southern-most part of south-western Ohio, we are lucky because we also have a small native population of "yellow" Red-eared Sliders. I learned about the yellow form on a canoe trip while photographing turtles with Paul Krusling, a local herp specialist and turtle lover who has studied them since the 80s. Probably descended from an ancient population, the yellow form can be found near Shawnee Lookout Park and around the Oxbow area. I haven't seen one yet, but hope to. My best bet is probably at the Oxbow. Thank goodness a small group of nature lovers stepped up years ago and saved the wetland. With the yellow form, a bright yellow or cream stripe replaces the dominant orange or red stripe.

The "elegance" of T. scripta elegans is probably part of the reason the species has spread far and wide. Who can resist the charm of a beautiful little turtle with a bright red stripe on its face? To add to its appeal, when the turtles are babies they are bright green, making them even cuter. I clearly remember seeing mobs of the tiny little turtles in dime store aquariums and pet shops when I was a kid in the 60s. They were always a temptation. I guess beauty really can be a curse...

...see ya later, T. scripta elegans--you little cutie with your elegant markings!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Drawing and painting hummingbirds...while they are still here!

...the female and juvenile Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are going crazy at our house zooming here and there and fighting at the feeders. The males have already left, getting a jump on their big journey south and leaving lots of nectar behind for the females and juveniles. Last week we had several new birds at the feeders, no doubt stopping off to refuel as they migrate south...

Paintings 69-71 were fun little sketches. I drew them quickly with a pencil on watercolor paper while sitting in the car waiting for Matty. If you recognize the poses, it's because I used reference photos from a series I photographed back in 2009. It was fun drawing these birds because I wasn't worried about stray lines or erase marks, detail, or accuracy...just creating quick little impressions to get things started. When I got home, I went outside and painted over the top of the sketches with watercolor. The hummers were really active that day, and I enjoyed seeing them and listening to their fighting while I laid in the color...

Painting 71. Hummingbird Sipping Lucifer Crocosmia Nectar
Watercolor and graphite

...the pencil sketch for painting 71.

Painting 70. Hummingbird Resting Beside Lucifer Crocosmia Blossoms
Watercolor and graphite

...pencil sketch for painting 70.

Painting 69. Hummingbird Resting on Lucifer Crocosmia Stalk
Watercolor and graphite

...pencil sketch for painting 69.

Painting 68 was even more basic. Scratched out with a charcoal pencil, I then went in with plain water in a waterbrush to soften and add shading. After that, a few strokes of watercolor to define and anchor. I did this in the car, and it only took a minute or two. It was meant to be a study, to help me figure out how I was going to paint the pencil sketches. It's the first time I've used charcoal in over 30 years. I loved it and will be using it a lot more...

Painting 68. Hummingbird in Charcoal

I splashed out painting 67, the first painting in the series, with one color in just under one minute. Meant to be a study to give me a feel for the hummingbirds, I was outside by the feeders while the hummingbirds were buzzing around when I painted it. It's fun to throw caution to the wind with these quick studies...

Painting 67. Hummingbird in Blue

...these paintings are all part of the 100 Paintings Challenge.