Sunday, January 29, 2012

He can wipe away the grey!

Walking the woods along the Little Miami river today was less than inspirational (at first). It was so grey, it felt like the color could swallow you whole. Thank goodness this little guy came along peeping his happy song. His shade of grey is always welcome!!

Gray on gray...Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) in the winter
A Tufted Titmouse's peeping song cuts through the grey woods with cheer!

Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)
I like grey when it has feathers...

A sweet Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) peeps his happy song on a cold day
...keep on peeping Beaolophus bicolor!

p.s. Bird profile shots are always great references for artists. Feel free to use these photographs to help you sketch, draw, or paint a cute tufted titmouse! 

Friday, January 27, 2012

A Long-eared Owl in his winter roost...

Yesterday at 4:00 p.m. I headed up to the Caesar Creek area with my birding and turtling friend, Paul Krusling, to look for a Long-eared Owl that is wintering in our area. Paul had seen the owl with his family the previous weekend and offered to go up and help me find what would become my next life bird...

A Long-eared Owl roosts in a tangle of cedar branches near Caesar Creek State Park.

If you pick up a book and read anything about Long-eared Owls, you'll probably come across the word "secretive." I've seen the word in almost every description of the bird I've ever read, and I often wondered about that. What owl isn't secretive? Well...after seeing the bird in person, I now understand. He was nestled so deep in a tangle of cedar branches if I wasn't looking in a specific place, I would never have seen him. To photograph him I had to shoot through several trees and many branches. I'm surprised he's visible at all. Thank goodness for telephoto lenses and the crop tool!

Warm caramels, rich browns, deep blacks, and pale buffs all come together to create a stunning bird, and even though a Long-eared Owl is a formidable raptor that kills its prey by biting the back of their skulls, "pretty" is the word that kept coming to mind as I watched at him through the camera lens. His colors and patterns are beautiful...and pretty...

When nervous or wary, a Long-eared Owl will pull in and compress his feathers to make his body look taller and thinner. When you combine the thinner cylindrical shape with the cryptic colors of his feathers, he looks like a limb! The very large tufts of feathers on his head add to the illusion by making him look like a broken-off limb.

Not just Long-eared Owls compress their feathers when nervous, but this was the first owl I've ever seen do it. Because he appeared so thin, we immediately left the area by his roost and climbed higher on the hill so we could look down on him from a distance. Through the binocs and the camera lens, we could watch him relax, and it didn't take long for him to puff back out to a plump, little owl!

...he's already getting a little puffier here. Right after I took this photo he regurgitated a pellet. I wish I had been videoing him. It was effortless the way he coughed it up...nothing like a cat hacking up a hairball!

...and finally within minutes he became a puffball with sleepy eyes. We left, going wide so he would not be disturbed.

Even though Long-eared Owls often roost communally in winter, ours was a solo-owl. If others were about, they were really camouflaged! What an incredible experience. This was a life bird for me, and one I probably won't see again any time soon...

Beak Bit
Every now and then I post "Beak Bits," which are tiny bite-sized bits of bird science. I started doing these a couple of years ago when my cousin's little girl started reading my blog. Anna has become quite the birder and recently did a science project on backyard birds! Yeah! We've added another bird-lover to our ranks. Hi Anna! This Beak Bit is for you...
The long "ears" on a Long-eared Owl are not ears at all. They are feather tufts that have nothing to do with hearing. The long tufts help provide camouflage for the owl by breaking up its shape and helping it imitate a broken branch. The Long-eared Owl's "real" ears are hidden under feathers and are located inside its facial disk. Since Long-eared Owls are strictly nocturnal and do their hunting in the dark, they have to hear very well. The owl's facial disk funnels sound to the owls ears, which are located behind the eyes and are asymmetrical. The left ear opening is higher than the right, which helps the owl narrow in on mice running in a field.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Where are the peanuts?

It was cold. It was dark. It was icing.
I was out of peanuts.
Red was not amused...

...reduced to eating frozen crabapples in an ice storm, Red glares at me with his left eye.

...then he gives me the once over with his right eye.

...until he finally decides the cold shoulder is all I deserve.

...and yes, I did run out and restock immediately!

In reality, Red was on the other side of the great room window eating crabapples, which were frozen and aged to perfection. I think he really liked them because he hung around for a while. Every time I clicked the shutter he would glance up at me until he decided there was no news attached to the clicking sound and went back to plucking off and eating the crabapples.
(p.s. I really was out of peanuts...and I really did go out and restock, which made the Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays very happy!)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Painting a Barn Owl...

This Barn Owl's name is Storm. She's a rescued owl from RAPTOR, Inc. One day last fall, Matty and I went to a photo shoot of the raptors. I based this painting on one of the photos Matty took. It made him happy that I preferred his photo over all of mine! Storm is a beautiful bird. She is a working educational bird with RAPTOR, Inc. because her wing was damaged and she can no longer fly.

Painting 208. Storm the Barn Owl
(watercolor, 12x16)

Pencil sketch of Storm the Barn Owl.
I sketched this drawing in the car (of course) while waiting to pick Matty up from school. Matty is just a week or so away from receiving his driver's license. It will be nice to gain some time back in my schedule, but when am I going to get all of my sketching in? I love leaving work to go pick him up. It's always great to take a sketching break...

Barns Owls are not that common in Ohio. In all my life I've only heard a Barn Owl call in the night twice—the first time was in 1990 in the pine trees in our backyard where we used to live, and the second time was two years ago in our backyard. I got out Peterjohn's "The Birds of Ohio—with Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas Maps" to see what the Ohio breeding population actually was (pg 264). It's very low. Peterjohn reports that Barn Owls really
didn't take hold in Ohio until the mid-1800s after the thick forests of the countryside were cut and converted to farmland. The first specimen was collected from the Cincinnati area around 1861. Most Barn Owls are not permanent residents in Ohio. As spring migrants, Barn Owls arrive between March 15 and April 15. A few Barn Owls do overwinter here, though, most of them in southern and central Ohio. Unlike Great Horned Owls, who are already nesting, Barn Owls begin nesting in mid-April. Nestlings hatch through June and July, and young fledge by mid-August.

About RAPTOR, Inc.
Most of the birds that flow through RAPTOR are treated, rehabbed, and released back into nature, but some can never heal from their injuries and stay on as permanent residents and working birds. RAPTOR, Inc. is a non-profit organization committed to the preservation of birds of prey. RAPTOR stands for the Regional Association for the Protection and Treatment of Raptors. Members of RAPTOR, Inc. rehabilitate and care for injured birds of prey until they can be released back into the wild. Click here for RAPTOR, Inc.'s HackBack newsletter and to learn how to donate to the organization, volunteer, or sponsor a banded raptor.

RAPTOR, Inc.'s 2012 Calendar
I'm in this year's RAPTOR, Inc. calendar! My photo of Pricilla, the Barred Owl, is April's raptor. Click here for Pricilla's story. Click here if you'd like to buy the calendar. All proceeds benefit RAPTOR, Inc., and your contribution is tax deductible. Cost is $17.50.

Click here for Storm's story.
Click here for more of the birds from RAPTOR, Inc.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Song Sparrow in the late afternoon light...

Sunday I finally started to feel better after recovering from a cold that had kept me indoors for far too long, so I bundled up and headed over to Voice of American (VOA) Park. It was very cold, but it was also blue-sky sunny, and I wanted to see if the American Kestrel that's usually there was hanging around (he wasn't). After checking the frozen lake for winter visitors (there were none save a lone Canada Goose slipping and sliding on the ice), I went off-trail and climbed over the brushy hills that lead to the meadow. It was nearly 5:00 p.m., and the late afternoon sun was doing its winter magic by coloring the dead and bleached brush with warm tones of gold and rust. Suddenly, what seemed like a deserted patch of earth came to life as five small brown birds skittered around, weaving here and there through leaves and bent grass until eventually bursting up in a panic to the safety of stubby snags and the remains of giant pokeweed bushes where they paused to keep a wary eye on me...

A beautiful little Song Sparrow peeked at me from behind a branch, watching warily with just just one eye. If you think he looks cute here, you should have seen him through the camera lens. It would have melted your heart.

...he then moved behind a branch, peeking out with the other eye, obscured from view in shadow...

I'm surprised he didn't lift his little foot and point two little toes at his eyes and then one back at me in that "I'm watching you..." gesture.

The warm browns of a Song Sparrow in late afternoon sunshine...

Eventually the Song Sparrow decided I was no threat...

...turned his back on me, and rejoined his little winter foraging flock on the ground.

When I read this journal entry from Thoreau (April 2, 1853), I had to smile...sounds just like our little sparrows:
"The song-sparrows, the three-spotted, away by the meadow-sides, are very shy and cunning: instead of flying, will frequently trot along the ground under the bushes, or dodge through a wall like a swallow; and I have observed that they generally bring some object, as a rail or branch, between themselves and the face of the walker,—often with outstretched necks will peep at him for five or ten minutes." (Source: page 302, "Early Spring in Massachusetts: from the journals of Henry David Thoreau," edited by Blake, 1881/1893. Click here for the online version of this book.)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Our new Sharp-shinned Hawk—and the other side of birding...

Yesterday while brushing my teeth, I was looking out the bathroom window at the peanut feeder hanging from our Ash Tree. About 10 European Starlings were clambering over it, trying to each get a peanut. With such a ruckus, I wondered why I had never seen a hawk take down a starling in our backyard. They are numerous and large, are easy to spot, and would make a good meal. It only seemed logical. As the thought was leaving my head, the Sharp-shinned Hawk that's new to our yard swooped in and grabbed one of the outermost starlings, sinking to the ground with it in one graceful move. Holy Cow! I couldn't believe it. I've never seen anything happen in real life as I conjured the thought in my head! The Sharp-shinned Hawk must have been hiding in the huge pine trees next to the feeder. A few days earlier I had watched the same Sharp-shinned Hawk, who had been hiding in a tangle of branches in the Weeping Willow tree, burst out in pursuit of a Northern Cardinal. The cardinal out maneuvered the hawk and got away. The starling wasn't as lucky...

This winter has brought a new "regular" to our backyard—a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

We've had Sharp-shins visit our yard every now and then, but they have never stuck around. Cooper's Hawks always seemed to prefer our yard, but now that the magnificent "hawk branch" has fallen, a Sharp-shinned has shown up. He doesn't seem to need a perfect lookout. He seems to like hiding in the tangles of the Weeping Willow or the thick branches of the pine trees.

Rick was the first to spot this fellow. He called him out to me saying, "look at that tiny hawk!" I scrambled to the window, and sure enough, a Sharp-shinned Hawk was perched in the Weeping Willow. Compared to the Cooper's Hawks that usually visit our yard, he is much, much smaller, but just as lethal.

When I look at photos, it's really hard for me to tell a Sharp-shinned Hawk from a Cooper's Hawk. I know Sharp-shins are supposed to have squared-off tails, be broader at the shoulders and narrower at the hips, and that a small, male Cooper's hawk can look like a large, female Sharp-shinned Hawk, but out in the yard, it's easier to tell them apart. They perch in different areas and the Sharp-shinned Hawk is noticeably smaller. His legs are so thin and his middle toe seems extra long too. Click here for a detailed description on Cornell's Project FeederWatch site to learn how to tell a Sharp-shinned Hawk from a Cooper's Hawk.

...after taking down the Starling, the hawk sat on the ground with the bird for a moment or two. He then lifted up, carrying the Starling with him to the woods near the back of our neighbor's yard. The Starling was nearly as big as the Sharp-shinned Hawk. I was surprised at how the hawk was able to take off so easily.

Afterwards, I went outside to see if any evidence of the hawk's attack was left behind. At first I saw nothing, but then droplets of blood stood out. Sharp-shinned Hawks' talons are very sharp, so it should not have been a surprise, but I was still a little shocked to see the blood splatters on the leaves. I wasn't going to include this shot, but it seemed important. It's the other part of bird watching.

If you want to see a Cooper's Hawk eating his prey, and compare it to this Sharp-shinned Hawk, click here for an earlier post.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Winter cardinals...

Against dark grey skies and bright white snow, the red of a winter cardinal is vibrant and impossible to ignore. With our first winter days finally showing up, all I had to do was look out my window to see that incredible color. I painted three cardinals in similar poses in three styles...

Painting 205. Cardinal in Snow
(watercolor; background snow created by scraping white oil pastel over a grey watercolor background)

This painting is a study in contrasts—the saturated red watercolor of the Northern Cardinal, which is very soft and blended, contrasts with the rough strokes of the white oil pastel. The contrast creates a very small black/grey halo around the bird to make the scene feel stylized and a touch painterly. It also emphasizes the red of the cardinal.

Painting 206. Cardinal When the Snow First Flies
(watercolor; snowflakes created by splattering white acrylic paint over finished painting) evening falls, most birds head to their nighttime roosts fairly early, but the cardinals linger at our feeders and in our trees until it is almost dark. The other evening, a male Northern Cardinal sat in a tree outside my window while the snow started to fly. Our first heavy snowfall is always exciting, and I look forward to seeing glimpses of red through the heavy and quickly falling snowflakes of evening.

Painting 207. Winter Cardinal as Night Falls
(oil pastel)

...nothing can tone down the red of a male cardinal as night falls in winter!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A male Golden-crowned Kinglet displays his orange crest!

While walking along the Little Miami River, I heard the high-pitched see-see-seeing of a Golden-crowned Kinglet. It didn't take me long to find a little female flitting from branch to branch looking for something to eat. She was fairly high in the tree, so I did a little pishing to see if she would come in a little closer. She was very curious of the sound and dropped right down! While I had my camera lens trained on her, a male popped into the frame. "Whoa!" raced through my mind as I watched him raising his "tangerine beret" for all he was worth. His orange crest was brilliant, and I paused to watch. Mistake. He was out of focus in flash and flitting here, there and everywhere...

(If you're not familiar with "pishing" in a bird, check out Mike's post on 10,000 Birds, "The Fine Art of Pishing," for a description! :-)

A female Golden-crowned Kinglet on the left was more interested in my pishing sounds than the male's incredible territorial display of his orange crest, which normally stays hidden among yellow feathers.

The male quickly got used to my pishing sounds and decided nothing was amiss. His tangerine feathers instantly settled back down among the yellow...all but hidden from sight.

...the little female Golden-crowned Kinglet was very curious about the pishing sounds and hung around a little longer.

Luckily she turned around to give us a perfect view of her golden crown.

...but mostly she stayed safely tucked behind a tangle of branches—a special talent kinglets have!

...yes, I see you!

The Little Miami River at the abandoned Peter's Cartridge Factory is an ideal place to find Golden-crowned Kinglets. In the winter, bike traffic is low, so the trail is quiet, and the Golden-crowned's high-pitched calls carry through the trees effortlessly, making it easy to spot the little balls of fluff. I see them almost every time I walk the trail in winter.

Beak Bit
Golden-crowned Kinglets are tiny birds. The only bird in our eastern woods smaller is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird...and to top that off, Golden-crowned Kinglets can be found here all year! It's amazing these birds stay through the winter because they are insect eaters. Kinglets will eat a few grass seeds and elderberries, and they sip from sap wells created by sapsuckers, but they prefer insects. During the winter, they survive by devouring the insect larva and eggs hidden in crevices in bark, branch tips, and dried leaves. This provides a valuable service to us, because by eliminating the eggs and larva in the winter, kinglets help control plant-eating insect populations in the summer. In "Birds of Forest, Yard, & Thicket," by John Eastman (a book I've had for a long time and always enjoy reading, plus it's the source of this information), Eastman writes:
"They consume an abundance of tiny springtails (Collembola) and many bark hibernators—pine and spruce aphids, psyllids, fly larvae, and scale insects—plus eggs of aphids and other insects. Such a diet, researchers believe, provides the major winter sustenance of north-wintering golden crowns..."

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Blue skies in January...


...a happy little Carolina Chickadee singing and foraging along the Little Miami River.

...the blue backdrop is welcome. So often it's gray this time of year!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Tree Swallows in the early spring...

Friday it was 62 degrees F in Cincy...and sunny! It's often below zero this time of the year, and thick grey clouds so low in the sky you can almost reach up and touch them can lock us in for months on end, so sunny and blue and warm is a gift I'm glad Mama Nature is handing out. The daffodils have pushed through the earth in our front yard, and it feels like spring, which made me think of one of our earliest spring migrants, the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). Every March I anticipate their return, watching and waiting for them to swoop down and into the nest boxes at VOA Park and Pine Hills Lakes. With the spring-like weather and blue, sunny skies, I couldn't help but have these sweet birds on my mind, so I went through old photos for inspiration for this painting...

Painting 204. Tree Swallow in Early Spring on Rusted Steel Post

...another painting for Laure Ferlita's 100 Paintings Challenge. If you're an artist looking for a challenge, join up!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Song Sparrow under the pines...

Painting 203. Song Sparrow Under the Pines

I painted this Song Sparrow from a photo I took last January after a snow storm. The little guy was under a pine tree rooting through the dropped pine needles. He was looking for left-over bread crumbs. Birds had been scraping through the snow and pine needles all day, and dirt had been kicked up too. Eventually he found a bread crumb, ate it, and starting looking for more!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Learn to bird by playing a game!

Back in October, I started playing around with Larkwire, an online birdsong app that makes learning bird songs and bird calls almost easy...

The Larkwire app homepage...
You can learn to bird by ear playing this game!

Larkwire is an interactive Web game. Since October, I've played it on my computer, my iPhone, and my iPad (I love it on my iPad). As long as you have an Internet connection you can play...and when you play, you really will learn bird songs and calls!

I don't learn as quickly as I used to (boo!), but Larkwire seems to have overriden that tendency (yeah!) because I am learning songs I used to have trouble remembering. Maybe it's because Larkwire's founder, Phil Mitchell, has a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology and has developed a learning engine that uses "spaced repetition" to help us learn faster and retain more. I don't know how many times I've driven around with a bird song CD playing in the car (Matty and Rick just love that...) trying to learn bird songs (but not having much luck), but with Larkwire, I seem to learn the songs in a different way. It's more like being out in the field...

Click here to try it for free. No signup is required, so try it out!

Larkwire is affordable, and at least 10% of every purchase is donated to a conservation organization. There are several levels of songpacks you can buy. The "Birder Core" songpack includes the essential land birds and is only $8.95. I bought the the next level up, the "Birder Pro" song pack for the Eastern/Central region, and it was only $16.95 (it covers 233 species; the Western region covers 299 species). Click here for complete pricing and all the available songpacks. get ready for spring migration by learning those warbler songs the dead of playing a game!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Cooper's Hawk in the snow...

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me,
he complains of my gab and my loitering.
Walt Whitman
Song of Myself, LII

I’ve always liked this line from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (click here for an online version of the poem). It makes me laugh. I definitely have been scolded by hawks for loitering...

I don't think a Cooper's Hawk was the "spotted hawk" Whitman wrote about in his poem, but this Cooper's Hawk sure seems to be accusing me of something and complaining about it too!

...and he has every right. Our hawks have lost their perfect backyard perch—the dead limb on the half-dead weeping willow tree that extended out into the yard for prime viewing. "Where's my limb?" he complains. "What have you done with it?" he accuses. For years the hawks always perched on that limb—the hawk branch. It was so hawky it even had its own name. Cooper's Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, and once or twice, even a Red-tailed Hawk, have claimed it, watching the comings and going of everything in our yard, including us. From the perch, the hawks could see directly into our kitchen. We miss the limb as much as the hawks do. It was always a treat to walk into the kitchen and find a hawk sighting us. The hawks are making do with the other branches in the willow, the ash, and the mulberry trees, but it's just not the same...

...the snow was pretty, but it didn't last long!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

First Bird of 2012--Baeolophus bicolor!

This morning when I looked out the kitchen window to see what my first bird of the year would be, I saw nothing! Not a bird in sight, but within a second or two, a Tufted Titmouse flew up, nabbed a peanut from the mesh peanut holder, and looked up at me almost with a wink! I couldn't have asked for a more perfect bird to start the New Year...

A Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) Grabs a Peanut--watercolor sketch
Painting 1. Baeolophus bicolor Grabs a Peanut
(watercolor - just a few pencil lines and broad brush strokes, a quick sketch)

Tufted Titmouse sketch -- watercolor and colored pencil (quick and sloppy art!)
Painting 2. A Tufted Titmouse on New Year's Day
(watercolor heightened with colored pencil, another quick sketch)

a pencil sketch of a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolphus bicolor) from my sketchbook
...a pencil sketch of a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolphus bicolor) from my sketchbook.

Wishing you a very Happy New Year...with lots of peanuts!