Exploring natural history one itsy bitsy spider at a time...

Exploring natural history one itsy bitsy spider at a time...

Monday, February 22, 2010

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

As the snow and ice melts and the waterfowl returns to the open waters, birders bust out of their houses ill with cabin fever.  Waking up early even on the weekend, we visit the beautiful marshes of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge to view migrating geese, ducks, swans, sparrows, and eagles.  Bald eagles adorn the periphery of our views as we focus on a rough-legged hawk and watch a peregrine falcon dive into the tall confident loblollies.  Yellow-rumped warblers buzz over our heads as we pish for tree sparrows.  Horned larks and American pipits ignore our car engines and squeaking windows as we pause to admire their foraging party.

Horned Lark
"Great flocks come down the Atlantic coast in October and November, and separate into smaller bands that take up their residence in sandy stretches and open tracts near the sea or wherever the food supply looks promising, and there the larks stay until all the seeds, buds of bushes, berries, larvae, and insects in their chosen territory are exhausted.  They are ever conspicuously ground birds, walkers, and when disturbed at their dinner, prefer to squat on the earth rather than expose themselves by flight.  Sometimes they run nimbly over the frozen ground to escape an intruder, but flying they reserve as a last resort.  When the visitor has passed they quickly return to their dinner.  If they were content to eat less ravenously and remain slender, fewer victims might be slaughtered annually to tickle the palates of the epicure.  It is a mystery what they find to fatten upon when snow covers the frozen ground.  Even in the severe midwinter storms they will not seek the protection of the woods, but always prefer sandy dunes with their scrubby undergrowth or open meadow lands." - Bird Neighbors by Neltje Blanchan, 1904

Yellow-rumped Warbler in the Phragmites looking for attention. (and gladly given)

Tree Sparrow
"The tree sparrow actually does not show half the preference for trees that its familiar little counterpart [chipping sparrow] does, but rather keeps to low bushes when not on the ground, where we usually find it... Sheltered from the high, wintry winds in the furrows and dry ditches of ploughed fields, a loose flock of these actice birds keep up a merry hunt for fallen seeds and berries, with a belated beetle to give the grain a relish." -Bird Neighbors by Neltje Blanchan, 1904

Snow Geese
I could tape eight of these pictures together end to end and still wouldn't capture the entire flock.  Birders estimated the flock at over 11,000 birds.  Beautiful!  And amazing that Earth is bountiful enough to sustain them all at once! 

Tundra Swans

Saturday, February 13, 2010

More winter yard birds...

American Goldfinch
"An old field, overgrown with thistles and tall, stalky wild flowers, is the paradise of the goldfinches, summer or winter.  Here they congregate in happy companies while the sunshine and goldenrod are as bright as their feathers, and cling to the swaying, slender stems that furnish an abundant harvest, daintily lunching upon the fluffy seeds of thistle blossoms, pecking at the mullein-stalks, and swinging airily among the asters and Michaelmas daisies; or, when snow covers the same field with a glistening crust, above which the brown stalks offer only a meagre dinner, the same birds, now sombrely clad in winter feathers, cling to the swaying stems with cheerful fortitude." -Bird Neighbors by Neltje Blanchan

White-throated Sparrow
"These sparrows are particularly sociable travellers, and cordially welcome many stragglers to their flocks- not during the migrations only, bt even when winter's snow affords only the barest gleanings above it.  Then they boldly peck about the dog's plate by the kitchen door and enter the barn-yard, calling their feathered friends with a sharp tseep to follow them.  Seeds and insects are their chosen food, and were they not well wrapped in an adipose coat under their feathers, there must be many a winter night when they would go shivering, supperless, to their perch." -Bird Neighbors by Neltje Blanchan

Dark-eyed Junco
"From the tip of that stout little flesh-colored bill to the ends of the long white feathers which form the outer edges of its tail, the junco is every inch the 'snowbird' so popular with millions of Americans from coast to coast and from the border to the Gulf.  In spring it moves to breeding grounds among the hills and mountain ranges of Pennsylvania, New York, New England, and Canada, seeking a well-hidden nook on or near the ground for its deep cup nest of moss, bark shreds, and grasses in which to raise a family of four or five youngsters.  But October finds it back on accustomed winter ranges, flitting busily among the weed patches, enlivening countless suburban yards and country farms with a welcome presence." -Our Amazing Birds by Robert S. Lemmon

Blackbirds from the Motion Camera

Red-winged black birds, common grackles, a white-throated sparrow, and dark-eyed junco are among the starving birds scouring the yard for sunflower seeds even amidst the howling wind and snow blizzard.  Photo captured from a motion sensor camera.
The next day the red-winged blackbirds are still around.  Luckily every time the camera takes a picture they get scared away temporarily giving the smaller birds their chance.

Friday, February 12, 2010

More birds in the snow...

Snowed in again.  Nothing to do other than sit on the porch waiting for the right light to take bird pictures and once the light is gone read old books in bed.  Here are some more of my hungry visitors.

Juvenile Red-winged Blackbird
"Liking either heat or cold (he is fond of wintering in Florida, but often retreats to the north while the marshes are still frozen); enjoying not only the company of large flocks of his own kind with whom he travels, but any bird associates with who he can scrape acquaintance; or to sit quietly on a tree-top in the secluded, inaccessible bog while his mate is nesting; satisfied with cut-worms, grubs, and insects, or with fruit and grain for his food--the blackbird is an impressive and helpful example of how to get the best out of life." -Neltje Blanchan in Bird Neighbors, 1904

Song Sparrow
"The song sparrow, that universal favorite and firstling of the spring, comes before April, and its simple strain gladdens all hearts." - John Burroughs in Wake-Robin, 1913
"What the bird lacks in beauty it abundantly makes up in good cheer.  Not at all retiring, though never bold, it chooses some conspicuous perch on a bush or tree to deliver its outburst of song, and sings away with serene unconsciousness.  Its artlessness is charming.  Thoreau writes in his "Summer" that the country girls in Massachusetts hear the bird say: 'Maids, maids, maids, bang on your teakettle, teakettle-ettle-ettle.'" -Neltje Blanchan in Bird Neighbors, 1904

Brown-headed Cowbird 
"Even the cow bunting feels the musical tendency, and aspires to its expression, with the rest.  Perched upon the topmost branch beside his mate or mates, --for he is quite a polygamist, and usually has two or three demure little ladies in faded black beside him, --generally in the early part of the day, he seems literally to vomit up his notes.  Apparently with much labor and effort, they gurgle and blubber up out of him, falling on the ear with a peculiar subtile ring, as of turning water from a glass bottle, and not without a certain pleasing cadence." - John Burroughs in Wake-Robin, 1913
Listen to their call here.

White-crowned sparrow
"The large size and handsome markings of this aristocratic-looking Northern sparrow would serve to distinguish him at once, did he not often consort with his equally fine-looking white-throated cousins while migrating, and so too often get over-looked.  Sparrows are such gregarious birds that it is well to scrutinize every flock with especial care in the spring and autumn, when the rarer migrants are passing." -Neltje Blanchan in Bird Neighbors, 1904

White-crowned Sparrow

Bluejay works to open a sunflower seed.

Got it!

"Dishonest, cruel, inquisitive, murderous, voracious, villainous, are some of the epithets applied to this bird of exquisite plumage.  Emerson, however, has said in his defence he does 'more good than harm,' alluding, no doubt, to his habit of burying nuts and hard seeds in the ground, so that many a waste place is clothed with trees and shrubs, thanks to his propensity and industry.  
He is mischievous as a small boy, destructive as a monkey, deft at hiding as a squirrel.  He is unsociable and unamiable, disliking the society of other birds.  His harsh screams, shrieks, and most aggressive and unmusical calls seem often intended maliciously to drown the songs of the sweet-voiced singers.  
From April to September, the breeding and moulting season, the blue jays are almost silent, only sallying forth from the woods to pillage and devour the young and eggs of their more peaceful neighbors.  In a bulky nest, usually placed in a tree-crotch high above our heads, from four to six eggs, olive-gray with brown spots, are laid and most carefully tended.
Notwithstanding the unlovely characteristics of the blue jay, we could ill spare the flash of color, like a bit of blue sky dropped from above, which is so rare a tint even in our land, that we number not more than three or four true blue birds, and in England, it is said, there is none." -Neltje Blanchan in Bird Neighbors, 1904 
"Bearing himself with a refined and courtly dignity, not stooping to soil his feet by walking on the ground like the more democratic robin, or even condescending below the level of the laurel bushes, the cardinal is literally a shining example of self-conscious superiority--a bird to call forth respect and admiration rather than affection.  But a group of cardinals in a cedar tree in a snowy winter landscape makes us forgetful of everything but their supreme beauty." -Neltje Blanchan in Bird Neighbors, 1904

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch aka Tree-mouse
"Shrewd little haunter of woods all gray,
Whom I meet on my walk of a winter day--
You're busy inspecting each cranny and hole
In the ragged bark of yon hickory bole;
You intent on your task, and I on the law
Of your wonderful head and gymnastic claw!

The woodpecker well may despair of this feat--
Only the fly with you can compete!
So much is clear; but I fain would know
How you can so reckless and fearless go,
Head upward, head downward, all one to you,
Zenith and nadir the same in your view?"
--Edith M. Thomas in Neltje Blanchan's Bird Neighbors, 1904

Gems! And who knew all these gorgeous beings were stowed away in the forest as we went about our daily routines?  What lovely surprises and glorious presents!  

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Winter Bird Photography

One thing that makes walking around in 2 ft of snow worthwhile is the nice views of winter birds.  The beautiful shimmering fields of windblown snow and frosted trees aren't so bad either.  

Yellow-bellied sapsucker on a beech tree.  
Look closely and check out the typical sapsucker pattern he's leaving behind on the bark.
"Sapsuckers are members in good standing of the woodpecker tribe, but they are the only ones whose chisel strokes through the bark of trees are aimed primarily at getting sap to drink and soft sapwood to eat rather than insect larvae.  Often a single individual will drill rows and rows of little wells around the trunk of some favorite tree and return to them at intervals for several days to collect nutritive dividends." --Robert S. Lemmon in Our Amazing Birds, 1952
Carolina wren proudly singing away.
"This largest of the wrens appears to be the embodiment of the entire family characteristics: it is exceedingly active, nervous, and easily excited, quick-tempered, full of curiosity, peeping into every hole and corner it passes, short of flight as it is of wing, inseparable from its mate till parted by death, and a gushing lyrical songster that only dead itself can silence... The Carolina wren decidedly objects to being stared at, and likes to dart out of sight in the midst of the underbrush in a twinkling while the opera-glasses are being focused."
Eastern towhee and white throated sparrow taking a break from the search for food. 
White-crowned sparrow goes beautifully with the honeysuckle vine.

Song sparrow hoping this bit of dust has nutrition of some sort.  

Northern flicker (aka High-hole, yarup, wake-up) proudly reins over the young virginia pines.

My "street" (long gravel/mud driveway) did finally get plowed out last night and I safely made it to Lowes and back with a fresh supply of bird seed.  Perhaps tomorrow I'll catch a shot of the nuthatches that have been visiting.  Until then! 

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Wishing I had skis or snowshoes or a shovel...

This is my first Maryland two feet of snow adventure.  Don't have a shovel, snow blower, cross country skis, four wheel drive, or snowshoes... but at least I have rain pants and packing tape to tighten them around my ankles...  

  Probably fox tracks above.  Lots of stinky fox pee on the trail.  Perhaps the tail was hitting the snow on either side of the tracks.  

More tracks... little jumping rodent with a tiny freezing tail!     

Raccoon tracks

The poor birdies are going to starve!  I wish I had more bird seed or could get to Lowes.  Let's hope for some snow-melting sunshine to get me out of here in the next few days.  I'm quickly depleting my movie supply! 

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Snowy February

A snowy walk to work this morning turned out to be a treasure chest of tracks.  

Bird tracks...

Squirrel tracks...

Cottontail tracks...

White-tailed deer tracks...

Red fox tracks....

Lovely morning!