Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Giant Things of Montana

Tuesday, July 26, 2011
On a lonely highway in eastern Montana on a day in June with unsettled weather. Objects on the horizon...what could they be? They are strange creatures, but they do not seem to be moving. Yet.

My stars, there are a lot of these strange things and they've occupied the high ground. I hope they do not attack our car as it rolls along the highway.

Starting to feel a little FREAKED OUT....

I wish that tall one would stop staring.

This one must have very strong neck muscles.

"Yay! Here comes another container of crunchy and delicious humans!"

This one is sad because he's not sure if he's a dinosaur or a lion. A lionosaur, perhaps?

It's so hard to run with bird poop in your eye.

OK. Now I'm finally calming down. They're just sculptures. Man, they were so lifelike, I was losing my grip on reality. I expected an attack from the Sleestaks at any moment.

Buck Samuelson's work is cataloged by The Smithsonian Institution.

I am proud to be an American. Cue the red-tailed hawk scream!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Happy Birthday Julie!

Monday, July 25, 2011
Happy belated birthday to mi esposa, Julie Zickefoose, who is an amazing person doing amazing things—some of which I'll share with you now:

She loves things like baby sea turtles (above) and baby box turtles which she tended for years until they were ready for release on our farm (below).

She teaches our kids about the truly wonderful things in nature. Like tadpoles (above) and badlands (below).
She's as at home hanging with birding glitterati (above) as she is sitting on the kitchen floor, in a winter power outage, making suet dough by headlamp (below).

She can rock out with The Rain Crows (above) or zen out in her kayak, barely speaking for hours on end (below).

She's not afraid to take chances, like photo-bombing with the local coppers at the county fair (above) or snorkeling in shark-(and dork-)infested waters (below).

She gets as much joy from her garden pod full of flowers (below) as she does in a really great piece of North Dakota strawberry-rhubarb pie (above).

And she dearly loves her friends, human and otherwise....

Happy birthday, Zick! May you live as long as (or longer than!) our old driveway oak.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Full Moon Meadow

Monday, July 18, 2011

The moonlight on the landscape has been amazing in this wetter-than-normal summer. Now, with the symphony of bird song slowly winding down as summer peaks and wanes, one of the comforting things I relish most is a long summer evening, when dusk hangs on endlessly. Fireflies, whip-poor-wills, and luna moths take over for the hummingbirds, cardinals, and butterflies. Nature's daily shift change. We sit and watch it all unfold, like the blooms on an evening primrose.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Darwin Awards Nominee

Tuesday, July 12, 2011
The Badlands in Teddy Roosevelt National Park near Medora, ND.

I'm sure you've heard of The Darwin Awards...these are the awards given to people (humans) who improve our species by accidentally removing themselves from it—often in unintentionally creative ways. Well, I have a possible nominee for such recognition.

Last summer we took the kids to Teddy Roosevelt National Park in westernmost North Dakota. TRNP is famous for its herds of wild horses and bison. Signs all over the park contain warnings about the dangers of bison—how they are large and unpredictable creatures. People and their vehicles are sometimes attacked and badly damaged/injured by bison and because the herds at TRNP are free-roaming, you regularly encounter them as you drive around the park.

Notice that I said "drive."

Teddy Roosevelt National Park is huge. To get from one part to another requires driving your car, which is no problem because everywhere you look there's something new and amazing to see. Mostly you find yourself stopping at the designated overlooks and roadside pull-offs. I got my life look at American elk from one such vista.
My lifer herd of American elk in TRNP.

Generally speaking you encounter the bison herds as you drive along the roads. Sometimes you have to wait for a herd of bison to cross the road. Sometimes you have to park on the road and wait while the herd moves around and past you. It's a bit terrifying, I have to admit, to be sitting in a small rental car with a dozen or more huge, dark, bellowing and grunting mammals on all sides—so close you can smell them!

The spots where we found ourselves getting out had no nearby bison (or we wouldn't have ventured from the car). And we knew better than to get our when we DID encounter bison.

Halfway around the driving route of the southern part of TRNP there's a side road that leads uphill to a very nice overlook named Buck Hill. As we turned into Buck Hill, we noticed that the guard rail on the corner of the two roads was rubbed to a high polish. From the footprints in the soil and the piles of chips scattered nearby, we deduced that this was a place where bison scratched themselves. There were no bison near, so we climbed out of the car to inspect things. Liam has always been fascinated by bison, so he took especial joy in feeling the rough metal rubbed smooth and shiny by the bisons' rough coats. He whooped with excitement at the wads of rubbed-off bison fur he found below the guard rail. We followed the bison tracks with our eyes, noting that they lead up the rise toward Buck Hill.

Back in the car we went, and up the road to Buck Hill. Parking in the lot, we took our time scaling one hill (not actually Buck Hill as it turned out) and then the other, more well-trod path to the overlook known as Buck Hill. It was from here that we scanned the miles of valley below us and found a large herd of female elk and calves (lifer!).

Phoebe scanning from Buck Hill.

We spent a good couple of hours up on Buck Hill, feeling the energy of the landscape, marveling at the Badlands ecosystem, spotting tiny dark spots that were herds of grazing bison in the distant green valleys.

As the day drew down, the wind picked up and swiped what little heat the sunshine had lent us. So we tromped back to the car and headed down the road leading off the hill.
Our Darwin Awards candidate.

As we reached the T-intersection at the bottom, we saw a man standing outside his large pick-up truck, leaning on the back bed, intent on photographing something. Then we spotted the huge bull bison at his scratching post. The man, only feet away, was pointing a tiny point-and-shoot camera at the bull, taking flash photos as fast as he could. We stopped well back from the scene, unsure whether or not we wanted to:

• stay to watch a possible bison attack
• drive up to warn the man to get the heck back in his truck.
• drive up to ask him his name and contact info for the Darwin Awards application submission.
• drive past and hope for the best.
• all of the above

We watched for a minute or two, and then the man got back in his truck, smiling a very large and proud smile. As we pulled past the bull bison, I swear the giant creature rolled his eyes at us as if to say "Yeah I know I could've killed him...but I didn't."

I love nature.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Sycamore Warbler

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

There's a male yellow-throated warbler singing from the sycamore tree outside my office window right now. These dudes are known to wander around in mid-summer—often venturing far from their nesting territory, and I'm always happy to hear them. This also happens each summer out at our farm: the post-breeding males show up in our one big sycamore tree and proceed to explore the sycamore, then our feeders, our stone chimney, the willow tree. One August morning I had an adult male YTWA climb up the leg of my spotting scope's tripod! He seemed intent on exploring and was unfazed by the large, grinning mammal (me) standing right next to him.

When I was a teenage birder (which sounds like a movie title) I knew this species as the sycamore warbler. Around these parts (southeastern Ohio) most of our breeding yellow-throated warblers are found in sycamores along rivers and streams. Nature has it all figured out. The sycamores love being near the water and the warblers love being in the sycamores.

Marietta, Ohio, where I work at Bird Watcher's Digest, is a river town, built at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers. With these two waterways and scores of other streams, creeks, and runs, we're blessed with an abundance of sycamore trees. Some folks dislike the sycamore, which is somewhat understandable. It can be a messy tree, if you worry about things like keeping your sidewalk, lawn, or car clean. Sycamores drop their flaky bark year-round. They drop branches and sticks like a furry dog sheds. They drop their sycamore seed balls and tons of pollen in the spring, and they drop their giant leaves in the fall.

The sycamore that lives outside my office window.

But I love the sycamore. The big one right outside my office window shades our building all summer long and is a bird magnet, letting me see nesting Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, Baltimore orioles, American robins, white-breasted nuthatches, and roosting common nighthawks. The bird list for the sycamore even includes things like indigo bunting, rose-breasted grosbeak, at least a dozen warbler species, and the lone merlin I've ever seen at BWD.

Yellow-throated warblers return early in the spring to our part of the world, often being our third or fourth warbler species to arrive in spring migration, just after the pine warbler, the Louisiana waterthrush, and the ovenbird. My guess is that the yellow-throated's foraging method is what allows it to come back so early—long before there's consistent warm weather and insect avalability. Watch a YTWA and you'll see that it often gleans the bark of trees, much like a nuthatch or creeper—or another tree gleaning warbler, the black-and-white.

It's often the yellow-throated's song that tips us off to their presence: Tee-yew, tee-yi, tee-yi, tee-yi, tee-yew, tee-yeet! The song cascades downward in pitch as the bird sings from the treetops, until the last note, which often rises upward, almost as if it's ending the song with a question.

And that's how I discovered today's post-breeding wanderer in the sycamore outside my office window, far from any water. He sang five times in a row. I hope he'll stay a spell, but I'm sure he's just a-ramblin' around. Nice to hear him, though, and to be reminded of this species that seems to love sycamore trees as much as I do.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Bee-Buzz Haiku

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Your wings are not blue
While others sing more sweetly
You just say "Beee-buzzzz!"

* adult male blue-winged warbler digiscoped at Long Point Meadows near Fayetteville, WV, May 2011.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Lifer #684

Friday, July 1, 2011
On Monday, June 27, at approximately 7:55 am Central Standard Time, I saw my life golden-cheeked warbler—an adult male—at a small cluster of ponds below a windmill-powered pump in Friedrich Wilderness Park, north of San Antonio, Texas.

This was my 684th North America life bird.

I'll tell the entire story about this lifer quest soon. Just wanted to share the news with my bird-head peeps out there in Interweb-land.