I have an elderly mom and have become acutely aware of the tail end of life...so I am often visiting my mom and handling finances, taxes....fending off people who want to re-roof her house etc. Well, this part of life, or what sadly becomes the visitation mode, is mentally difficult and stressful but it also makes me appreciate the life I do have now and continually live. Remember, life is short and one must 'lead life' as opposed to having 'life lead you.'
The corner of Washington near the Oregon and Idaho border where my the family home is, has it's own unique birds and one of them surprisingly is the American White Pelican. Right...the pelican. In this rural community; 331 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and Astoria, Oregon we have a thriving American White Pelican population. Now, open you your bird guide and take a look at this bird. See anything that might tease you?
I skipped to a new paragraph thinking that would be enough to hide the response in. Many times in the past within various locales in this western county, white pelicans will be circling and circling and circling prior to landing on an open pasture below. But to immediately contrast to what I had just seen at Forsythe, my mind turns towards snow geese. The Kaufman field guide states that snow geese "are white with black wingtips. American White Pelicans who love to soar according to Kaufman and according to my eyesight which I almost rely more-so upon that a bird guide are reminiscent of snow geese by having "white with black flight feathers'. When you are looking at them casually, they appear 'akin'.
Now here lies the problem to this little story. Attempting to get some 'mental time' to myself I managed to escape my visitation and take a nice long walk in the country towards twilight. With me, I borrowed my dad's (he passed away a few years ago and I do miss him so) old WWll binoculars where one has to focus each eye individually making it always feel as one has some eye stigma as you gaze thru these old Navy 12 x 56mm bins.
One of the first things in my twilight walk was the sound of a Northern Flickers. The day was a bit cold....gray....but one can always distinguish a Northern Flicker in flight and when it lands it always emits this 'kleeyah' sound or 'wik wik wik' (again borrowing the tone of voice from my Kaufman guide). The familiar kleeyah sound, much like a familiar smell which one might experience, immediately bring forth a tangible memory of life 'when'....in the past. Those are good connections.
So moving on with my walk, getting a bit sore from caring a two pound binocular since in the days of this binocular, the user had an entire ship to brace themselves with as they gazed in the distance....I saw ahead of me way up the air, two birds soaring around. These two guys were 'way up there' man, oh so way up as they soared over a stubbled field of what was a thriving wheat field earlier on in the year. I briefly raised up the pounds of glass and saw white birds with black wing tips soaring off in the distance. Hmmm...American Pelicans but...but....but....no, they couldn't be. They had the wrong shape and they were in the wrong location for even Pelicans to be. And they ain't snow geese either my friend. Again, gazing up I could see as they soared at an angle to the sun which gracefully allowed the light to play off of them ... a white rump. Yepper....these were two grey ghosts soaring way up in the air. Each of these gray ghosts (who also have white wing tips and are white/gray underneath ) were taking huge circular loops with their flight patterns just knicking the others much like the Olympic Rings overlapping each. Two gray ghosts....two of them, count em..."1" over there and another "1" over there. One plus one is the same in any part of the country.
They initially fooled me, as many birds seem to have the effect upon me....but their high altitude was a trick they were playing upon me, especially as I am here in the land of American White Pelicans. Yet sadly time was short to soak in this moment and experience these two gray ghosts. Dusk was speaking to me as well as a row of trees which were silhouetted against my view. Upon return to my venue of visitation, I immediately consulted Ken Kaufman. Kaufman states in his guide that Northern Harriers 'fly low over open fields' and Northern Harriers 'usually fly low unless they are migrating'. Okay....the 'usually' part allows these birds to be soaring high but I would think by now migration has already occurred for that pair of gray ghosts. Perhaps were they were migrating 'up' as opposed to 'down' so it was a matter of me placing the word 'migration' into proper context. They were migrating towards northern Washington or southern Calgary and if so, that might be that spring is in the air. Ah, I welcome spring for not only is that a time when baseball begins anew and my team 'if in spring training only' has a chance to win the World Series (Seattle Mariners...and I have been waiting for that time to come for 39 years), but also spring migration of birds begins once more. So let the fun begin and 'bring on the gray ghosts soaring high up in the air'....
I have places to go and see today, which means I am here and there in regards to my bird count this fine Valentine's Day. But, as I spoke to yesterday, here is a Tufted Titmouse #B (my count is only 2) going to it's favorite limb to find the treasure waiting for it within the black sunflower shell. Tufted Titmouse #A, goes to another limb. Now, this is not 100% certain as being 'limb specific', but I have noticed them returning to their specific limbs more than once. Titmouse B in this shot has pinned the sunflower shell between it's specific limb branch and its claw.
But, my eyes turn towards the Juncos...of of which there are now 26 in my back yard in various locales. And just as I write, the Coopers is back for another go around. This time it landed on the ground and took a walk. I notice that the backyard cadre of birds usually vacate the premises about 10 seconds before I (being a mere human) sight the hawk. So that is 'instinct' at work. Their senses pick up on predators way before the my dull sense.
20 minutes later. That is about the same time that it took yesterday for birds to return to the feeders after the Cooper came into play.
To revert back to the Junco....The question of the day is
"How does a Junco know 'what is what' on the ground? How does it distinguish between a solid edible seed and one that is just a shell or portion or or a pebble or whatever?"
Doing a bit of research on that, I found they have to establish as quickly as possible (ASAP), what is food and what is not. Obviously by ASAP, it implies before they become food themselves. Research shows that birds develop a SEARCH IMAGE. They know what they are looking for and concentrate solely on that image, that color. So as the sparrows are above in the feeder....they pull out a seed. But watch them next time. Look what else falls out of the feeder as they pull out 1 seed to eat. LOTS of stuff falls out of the feeder and makes it way to the ground. Since the Juncos have a SEARCH IMAGE in mind, they naturally peck away at the shape and color they are looking for and ignore the rest. It doesn't mean that the rest will not eventually be eaten by a squirrel or dove or another bird, but today, right now.....what they are eating has nothing to do with what is falling on the ground unless it matches that SEARCH IMAGE.
Yesterday.....in spontaneous preparation...... I removed the screen from the window in my upstairs office which conveniently overlooks a few feeders and the shelter of trees. I reached for the Windex and seemingly painted on sheer glass, clear ....unmarred and very inviting. A recollection of thought just a few years back came to me, when I was on the Snake River in Idaho doing a photo-shoot of the 'crewing team. The Snake that morning exhibited nothing but utter glass, not a ripple to be found. I perched a top a small natural jetty and clicked a shot of the team rowing in unison approaching that glass, leaving behind them a ripple of oars as the waves crept ashore in diagonal fashion. The breaking of calm water, yet still somehow pure peace.
Oh...also last night I ventured into Ocean City and listened to Pat Sutton hold court over us as she spoke to an audience of perhaps 50 concerning Birds of Cape May. This was a fascinating talk as 'still a young man I am' who recently took root here in Atlantic County, has a long ways to go to that of seeking out birding sites, the history of the area etc... It was truly a ....'far out' experience man. Pat and Clay have written a book entitled "Birds and Birding at Cape May' and certainly one I will pick up.
So here I sit on Feb 13th... alone at 8 am in my writers garret, with pen in hand, note book open.... I am ready for the birds. My thoughts are to record 'in count' the species I see every 15 minutes or so for the next 4-5 hours. Most will be repeats but over the course of morning hours, I will have a representation of the numbers of birds whom I cross eyes with.
At 8:15...in a freshly disguised morning sun...came the first eaters. A top the feeders and grass I counted 17 Juncos, 4 white throated sparrows and 2 goldfinches. A fast count it was as the birds scrambled and pecked on the grass and jockeyed for position on one of the rungs of the feeders and seemingly in a matter of minutes, they vanished. It is quiet now...But they will come...they will come.
Now...10am...Arriving at a count is not a forgone conclusion. Birds are continuously making a dart to the feeders...or the juncos more-so to the ground, as the white throated sparrows sloppily pull feed and drop most. The juncos lay in wait below, for the pellets of seed to fall like rain. Many juncos huddle within their own feathers sitting astride the naked branches of bushes which surround the feeders offering safety to what I know, is a neighboring raptor or two. So I record....but a final tally...hmmmmm
11am...They keep on coming eh? A beautiful male northern Cardinal makes it's presence at the Black Sunflower feeder along with a brief glimpse of a Carolina Wren. They just pop in....then out. But the White Breasted Nuthatch is truly a spectacular bird in not just the clothes it wears but its behavior. Their encounter with the Black Sunflower seed feeder is sketchy at best. Oooops...had my scope on him for a second. But what happens after they steal the sunflower seed is amazing. This little guy would have seed in beak, and retreat to the neighboring tree and the safety of the bark and the apparent feeling of being up-side down. It doesn't have a beak built to crack open an 'unshelled' black sunflower seed like finches or cardinals so needs to use the bark as its prop. It will scurry up the bark until it finds a notch and place the seed in the cavity. Once there it pecks away at it, deshelling it. Takes just a minute or so, then back to feeder and repeat process. In between it likes to stop off along the downside of the tree bark and dismantle a piece hoping to find some juicy insect under. When it returns with seed in beak, No Ryhme or Reason (to borrow a song from John Denver) as to what cavity it might want to utilize. Any cavity will due.
To contrast that.....the Tufted Titmouse will, like the Nuthatch....scamper away with it's treasure. It will scamper to a branch and in the crook of one branch connected to the other it will deshall...no need to find a tree cavity. It also prefers the same 'crook'..returning to that crook countless times for heck, if you have a good tool, why re-invent the wheel? The Downy Woodpecker, another encountering this fine hour of the day, will also scamper away with it's morsel of seed shell but will also, like the Nuthatch, prefer the confines of a bark cavity. Eating manners......But, watch a Downy Woodpecker at a sunflower feeder. It struggles. A grab for a seed but a miss...another grab, another, another, another....until finally successful.
11:50.....'something'.....just came ...it dominated the stage.
12:10....back online. Appears to be a few Chipping Sparrows in the mix of white throated. I know I have seen them before this year, so ....looks good. Spring is around the corner.
12:50....first squirrel showed up. What's with that? The grackles and starlings and cowbirds haven't shown up yet...but they will soon blacken the ground and with crazy eyes blaring.
1:20....My first day of the 'Backyard Birding Count' has come to an end. At the moment, birds are basking in that warm sun. A few Tufted Titmouse are still poking around the feeders but the Junco's are sated. So, comes a close to another exciting day. You know, even with the arrival of Mr. Cooper, isn't it just nature. Just as 'they will come for me'...so will 'they just come' for the Cooper. That bird has every right to be here and survive and hunt and eat. Sometimes we have a tendency to look upon raptors with beauty as they soar or perch, but refuse to equally look upon them with awe as they too feed, they too are just living and are a part of our natural surroundings, no more than any other predator.
Now first...before I begin this blog I want to say that I did not have my camera with me....sadly. Past experiences continue to show me time and time again, that if you forget your camera, 'they will come'. "THEY" can be anything, but 'they will come' and one will be left in utter excitement and foaming at the mouth with nothing to show for it.
This is a blog that perfectly exemplifies the combination of 'they' and 'no camera'.....
You see it all started off as I was in the process of testing a few spotting scopes. I was looking for a solid 65 spotting scope and ordered in a pair from B & H to test. Of course, 'ordering in' implies 'payment for as well' but B & H has an excellent return policy as long as they are returned within 30 days and are in excellent shape. Thus my 65 spotting spotting scope quest started with a day looking at a Kowa TSN 660 compared to a Pentax 65mm. So I trounced out the door with two scopes in hand, one tripod, my note book (you know, to jot down good stuff) closed the door.....the Canon with 400mm lens was left in the closet, up stairs....over there someplace to the right of me --similar to where it sits now, as I sit here blogging.
To make matters short on the technical side of things dealing with the scopes..... Around Gull Pond I went ($(&#(&%^#(&(*%&#(#) and then I turned down the first leg on Wildlife Drive ($#*$#*$*$#)(#*) and swung around the back side ()#$*)#*)(*#) .... Okay, enough of the technical stuff as I try to write in Charles Kuralt fashion.
At the wayside corner of the back side of Wildlife Drive and just onto the onset of the lengthy return leg on the same drive, ...right there in the corner overlooking the bay was a slew of ducks. ...way out there. Okay, a perfect chance to see what these scopes could do. I jumped into the passenger seat and rolled (well; more liked pressed the button down...rolled? Nah....) the window down and aimed one of the scopes at the ducks; hundreds of yards out in the bay. I aimed.....took a look again at what I was aiming at...scanned around me and there...I mean it, about 15 yards in front of me sitting on a mound of decaying and matted, reeds was this Perigrine Falcon. It was just starring at me. Whoa Nelly..... I mean, can one say Whoa Nelly any louder within their head so as not to scare the creature? Whoa Nelly!
I took my scope....not sure which one it was....and focused on the Falcon. Needless to say, the scope honed in on the falcon nicely....as it should being only 15 yards from it. This guy had just eaten as it came furnished to my eyes with a bloody cap on the right hand side of it's head and the breast had blood on the feathers. I missed a massacre of sorts just by minutes, in my calculation.
It (Or 'THEY" ...as I relate back to the opening paragraph) was staring at me.....I had one enlarged glass eye staring at it. We remained that way for 15 minutes. I tried to grab my i phone and shoot thru the scope but here I was resting the scope on the car window ledge with one hand, attempting to move my iPhone up in position with the other hand and see if I could align the lens with the eye-piece and somehow move another unknown third hand in place to click the camera. It didn't work.
There were two cars in back of me, both shooting away. One guy had a canon, and by that I don't mean Canon, but more like a canon as it reached out the window a few feet....I am sure he got lovely shots.
But I had none.....I had two scopes, no camera....and 'they' came..... I do have among other things memories of this fine camera-less day of a Perigrine Falcon nicely nestled and satisfied greatly as it sat upon the reeds.
Forsythe Day again...... Pretty 'frozen' day with the Canada Goose looking pretty much in familiar habitat, or at least seemingly familiar....as they practiced 'ice skating' on the tundra. But a great 'harrier experience' occurred too.
As I started my passage up Wildlife Drive....I got perhaps a few hundred yards into it when I saw a Northern Harrier slowly dipping and diving and flying low on the side of the drive making its way to me. I pulled over, took out my bins and just observed the harrier who was totally oblivious to my presence, for it kept coming right at me man. Having to refocus with each advance of it's wings, I could see the harrier crook its head from side to side, scanning for a small vole or mouse to eat. For a solid hundred yards or so, this pattern of dip....pull up to just no more than 10 feet above the grass line, dip again...pull up etc....continued. All the while it's head was jutting from side to side. A fabulous site and in 'full living color' ...better than an RCA.
This continued, up on the drivers side of the grass and when it came within a few yards of my car, it veered to the other side of the lane and had a gentle silent glide past my open window on the passenger side. I could have reached out and caught it with a net....or well....in theory I could have, but a sneaky inner perception of mine is telling me that I 'would haven missed' ....widely missed.
But that got me thinking. How many calories does a harrier burn and how many times in a day must it be a 'bit more successful' in its prey catch than what I saw here? When I returned home and did a bit of surfing, I found that according to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary a male harrier can weigh anywhere from 290-390 grams while a female harrier is from 390-600grams. Surprisingly the male is a better hunter, perhaps more aloof. Citing research by Craighead and Craighead (1956), the harrier diet consists mainly of small rodents (98%). Depending on the time of the year, it might consume 15-20% of it's body weight. Given that an average field mouse might weigh 20 grams or more, ...do the math. Taking an average weight of 425 grams for a harrier and 'x' it by 20% (since it is winter and it might need more food now), that would mean it would consume about 85 grams a day. Taking 85 grams and dividing it by 20 grams ( average weight of a field mouse) you get a bit over 4 mice a day in the wild. But a field vole might weigh up to 50 grams according to the University of Michigan so each portion will then becomes a bit more Americanized or Super-sized.
But does that make sense? Not sure....as research by Houston and Duke (1973) state, a red-tailed hawk might consume 75 grams a day. But a red-tailed hawk according to my Peterson Field guide is 2-3x larger in weight than a Northern Harrier. So why would they consumer an equal number of grams?
Now to translate that into caloric intake, field mice might roughly be 30-35 calories so if a harrier consumes 4 mice a day, that equates to only 140 calories...nah...that just can't be. Or is it too much? Or ...what? Confusing.
So the bottom line is that after spending a few hours surfing the web for this all important answer, I have one that is just convoluted at best. After all, has anyone really been crazy enough to have monitored a harrier in the wild and traced it's wing steps for an entire day to record food intake? Yeah, probably Tom Baxter.... I will have to ask him.....