Friday, July 27, 2007

The Train, the Spectral Bird, the Goldfinch, and the Sunflower

I'm at least 50 yards away when the train whistle blows, announcing its imminent arrival at the crossing. With impeccable timing, the bird, flapping with speed, lands on the telephone pole directly above the track, just as it passes under her. Her back is to be. Then she turns her head and and I see it for the first time. It gleams silver, and though it's noon there is something spectral about her. Not only has she a nearly white head but her eyes are so shaded by her brow right now that they look to be black holes in her skull.

Which species is it? What bird lands like a Red-tail but has a white head.

She looks to be either a Krider's Red-tailed Hawk or albinistic.

She's focused on the ground and I realize that she may actually have arrived at this spot, cued by the train's whistle. Though the track has Dollar General done the way on one side and Ace Hardware on the other side of the track, running adjacent to it is a green way that leads through the FFA's (Future Farmer's of America) newly cut grain field in one direction and grassland to woods in the other. There is no doubt that the train has frightened and flushed many a small animal out in the open by it's passage in it's day. I must come again when the train is arriving to see if she sometimes arrives as well.

Still searching, she pants. It is 90 degrees and humid so perhaps the rodents are resting in their burrows during the heat of the day, instead of being flushed from the grasses in the field by the train after all.

Her belly band is more a pattern for connect-the-dots then familiar streaks

I need to get closer and behind her to see her tail. I start to move. Care must be taken because this is a country hawk. She cocks her head. Alert. She looks at me. Why me? People are getting in and out of cars for the stores, joggers just passed by, but she has seen my eyes on her. All the others haven't the slightest clue that she's there except me. And she knows that I know.

No question. She's picked me out as something that bears watching. I get the first glimmer that her eyes may be pale, when the light strikes them. I don't want her flushing off the pole, and I'm still quite a distance away, but it won't matter if she decides I'm a danger. I mustn't look at her at all until I'm in a position behind her where I can see her tail. Otherwise I may never find out if she's a Red-tail, Krider-tail or Brown-tail.

I don't follow my own advice and take another photo. Though after focusing, and setting the timer, I look at the trees, the grass, the wildflowers near the road.

When I finally look up from behind her she thankfully hasn't turned. Unfortunately her tail is obscured by the double bar style of the pole. She isn't looking. Perhaps if I creep closer, the change in angle will allow me to see her tail beneath the crossbeam.
But she is looking. Perhaps hoping I wouldn't notice as I hoped she wouldn't . She's peering over her shoulder at me. Once again I get that creepy feeling of being observed. One can see her pupils which isn't usually the case with Red-tailed Hawks. They are swept back at a severe angle to look without seeming to look. She's beautiful yet eerie.

She turns slightly to see me better and more of her tail appears. Its Dreamsickle Red. She's a mature Krider's Red-tail, Buteo jamaicensis krideri. During the winter I watched two Krideri chase a third from their range but never managed a photo, nor had I seen one since.

She is obviously looking and will take off any second now if I don't retreat. See, I'm leaving. I'm going back where I came from.

When I arrive in front of her. She still stares.

She stares some more. I keep retreating towards Ace Hardware. Perhaps if I hide behind a truck...

A cloud passes over: the glare of the sun a little less. She watches me go with intent focus in her Krider's light eyes.
Then her body tenses and she flaps back across the field, exposing her very pale under wings and body before disappearing into the trees. Perhaps to wait in the shade for the next train to blow its whistle. Then once again she may fly into position. She is clever. She waits until the train is nearly upon the spot to arrive, while everyone is distracted by the rumbling cars rolling by. She's extremely clever. Though as Ben Cacace, one of the early Central Park hawkwatchers is prone to say, "Never underestimate a Red-tail".

And what should I find when I return to the house and hour later? Another moment I've been looking for. Mr. Goldfinch has decided that the Sunflower seeds are now perfect for eating. (Love those feet.)

He chooses another.

Some things truly are worth waiting for.
Donegal Browne

Thursday, July 26, 2007

NYC with Eleanor Tauber and a Country Twilight with Me

Photograph by Eleanor Tauber
Black Crowned Night Herons and reflected buildings...
As fine Central Park photographer Eleanor Tauber says, "Leave it to NYC to give us both!"

Photograph by Eleanor Tauber

Look at this! There's a new Mallard family at the Model Boat Pond. Perchance is the female a past Frick Duckling that has returned to the water she was raised in? Or just a clever girl who noticed how well the Frick Ducklings got on?

Because of their age these are most likely second clutch ducklings. Mom has brought them to a safe place, and perhaps these five will thrive. There are no Snapping Turtles and lots of eyes to watch out for them while spending their young days at the MBP.

And as we all know about my fascination with avian tootsies, here's a closer look at a little webbed duckling foot.

And in the Country...

7:22PM It's getting on toward evening and due to the drought I've had the hose out watering the garden. This squirrel, sitting under a Sunflower umbrella, uses stray droplets of water to wash his face.

7:23PM As usual Dad Chipping Sparrow is still hard at work for his family. See his beak? It's so stuffed full that the wideness seems to have made his eyes go slitty.

One more drink before looking for a roost?

8:10PM The light is dimming so it's time for Mr. I. Bunting to put in an appearance. See that cocked head look he's giving me? This is the point when previously without fail. there would be a blue streak where the bird had been.

But not this evening. For whatever reason instead, we get the tough bird, make-my-day look, and he goes right on eating. Maybe he's had a bad day too, and just can't take anymore?

8:13PM Wee Dad Chipping Sparrow is still hard at work. It will be dark before he disappears for the night. He is always the last to leave.
Donegal Browne

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Opportunistic Forbs or Frankly, These Are Some Tough Plants

Abutilon theophrasti
It's a member of the Mallow family. Velvet Leaf in Field Guides or Velvet Weed as they call it commonly in many places. It's actually rather a sweet looking flower. But being a very successful alien, it's often the first to show up in disturbed soil. Familiarity does breed contempt.

In all today's plants, not so much disturbed soil as what is commonly called a "waste place". They are basically growing in subsoil with gravel on top. Rather happily too, considering there is currently a bit of a drought in Wisconsin.

Why Velvet Weed? Because it is covered with short fibers, rather like the knap of the fabric.

This one reminds me a great deal of Wild Bergamant but somehow the leaves don't seem quite right. I'm still looking.

For the botanically inclined who may recognize it, a better look at the whole plant.

What kids call purple clover--A bovine favorite. Medicago sativa. Good old Alfalfa, another alien. Not far from here is the first field in Wisconsin ever to be planted in alfalfa. And after alfalfa, come the cows, and then the whole place becomes known as "Cheeseland". You never know what you're starting when you put a plant into the ground.

Looking for a good specimen of Queen Anne's lace I came across this. Another umbel shaped cluster (umbrella shaped) which has a tinge of pink in the peripheral florets so something else altogether.

Daucus carota
Here we go, Queen Anne's Lace or Wild Carrot, currently blooming everywhere in grand profusion. So it must be another alien? Correct.
The supposed "drop of blood" on Queen Anne's lace is the single deepest blood red blossom. I've always wondered, and still do, what the evolutionary impetus for that one tiny single bud of red was or is.
Donegal Browne

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Mini Urban Red-tail Report and Monday Miscellany

Photograph by Rob Schmunk

Here's Brownie/Cohort, the second fledge, sitting on the railing in the Cathedral close normally reserved for St. John's peacocks. They in turn were relegated to the lawn. For the full days events go to Rob Schmunk's blog

And sharp observer Winkie reports that the new fledgling Red-tail in Central Park that was sighted in Locust Grove is none other than Tailbiter. This year's first fledge off the Cathedral Nest who seems also to be this year's first of the brood into Central Park.

After a full day of feeding fledglings, Mr. Chipping takes a few minutes to sit in the shade during sunset.

What is it about laying straw over grass seed that makes it almost miraculously grow. Take this patch of extremely hard dry dirt. The city put in a sidewalk. And construction folks being focused on concrete, the reseeding process gets rather short shrift. This patch was supposedly reseeded. In other words it had seed thrown at it and that was that. As you can see, even with the addition of water to the seed, things did not work out at all well for those wanting grass instead of dirt.

Therefore when they tore up the curb and rebuilt it, straw was laid over the seed and the cracked dry dirt. Why does this make a difference? Okay, it would help retain moisture but wouldn't it cut the light out and diminish growth? Why does this work?
This works because grass seed grows grass. And all grasses started out as actual wild plants somewhere in their history. They came from seeds which did not often fall from the mature grass stalk onto dry cracked naked soil. They fell from the stalk onto last years dried grass, the substrate of a grassland. In other words, they're genetically built to start growing beneath dried grass. And that is exactly what straw is.

See the dark spot where the fresh sunflower seed is missing? See the nice place to perch without petals directly above that spot? Well, 2 seconds before the shutter clicked on the camera's timer, Mr. Goldfinch was sitting there plucking that seed. And didn't he with his yellow feathers and the sunflower with her golden petals look downright smashing together? You bet. But you're going to have to imagine for today.

Doorstep Dove appeared at 7:30PM without Friend. He came for dinner after she had left. They're back to nesting again. We'll soon see if their daughter get some new siblings. They might make a flock yet.
And W.A. Walters sent in this story from the NY Times about a bird garden in NYC similar to those in China.

In Chinatown, a group of men who keep songbirds as pets gather to listen to the chirping and take refreshments.

(I thought keeping native songbirds was illegal? D.B.)
Donegal Browne

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Looking at the Little Guys

American Goldfinch- Carduelis tristis, Family-Fringillidae

Have you ever noticed how tidy Goldfinch look? They are included in the group along with Blue Jays and Cedar Waxwings, who so rarely seem to have the avian equivalent of a bad hair day.

There he hangs upside down, perfect form, crisp color, sleek feathers and this is late in breeding season. The time of year when many mature birds have begun to get that harried, somewhat bedraggled, not-enough-time-for-themselves look.

And though I've been watching for months this is the first day that I've managed to catch site of his mate. Who, I must say, looks just as fresh as he does. How do they do it? I'd say just like some humans, a good bit of it, is in their genes.

And I've been watching this male Goldfinch for those same months, I know how long it takes for him to do his visible activities. Because it is never long enough for a digital camera to activate, for the timer to be set and for the focus mode and the shutter to click. It takes seven seconds for him to take a full unhurried for a Goldfinch drink. Which he does only twice on a normal day. Nor does he drink at near the same times. Always alert, his bath ends abruptly, within four seconds, when a human lays on eyes on him. He's becomes a bright yellow undulating flash flying for cover. (Thank goodness for the neighbor's thistle feeder.)

Also members of Fringillidae have a rather spectacular variety of bills, note his. He has the conical model.

Look at what those marvelous toes are doing. Particularly the left foot. He has one of the typical bird setups, with three in the front and one in the back. The middle toe and the rear one are curling to meet each other around the perch. But on the left foot, toes one and three are not only curled under to increase purchase but also curled in a particular way to counteract and facilitate the lean into the thistle feeder.

Passer domesticus domesticus
Here are a few of the horde of House Sparrows that descend on the grass each evening just before dark for a last snack before roosting.

Remember Right and Left House Finch? They've graduated from foraging on the ground by the Birdseed Barrel, to tentatively holding on while creeping their way round the edge of the feeder, and in short order, they've learned to creep, peck, chew, and swallow at the same time.

Carpodacus mexicanus
Not bad for a bird who's audio oculari aren't even feathered over yet.

(The folks making the dinosaurs for the Jurassic Park movies didn't watch birds a good deal before hand or anything did they?)

Spizella passerina
The local Cooper's Hawk flies over and the Chipping Sparrow, goes into a freeze, that includes the upturned head for better viewing.

Remember Little Chip? Little Chip is ecstatic. His feathers nearly aquiver with joy. His parent was so distracted by the Cooper's Hawk that when the hawk was lost to sight, Parent pecked seed up, hopped over to Little Chip, and fed him. Evidently forgetting that he is supposed to be weaned.

Dad Chipping Sparrow or perhaps at this time of day, it's mom, may not exactly believe what she's done in a weak moment.

As you can plainly see, Little Chip hasn't missed many meals. In fact he's very much, well, on the rotund side. Particularly for his species which tends toward the sleek and slim look.
We've seen it many times in the Red-tail fledges. No matter how much they have just eaten, the sight of a parent sets them to begging piteously. And I've never ever seen one refuse a single mouthful.
Is a young bird's appetite always on? Are they actually feeling hungry constantly or just wired to be little eating machines no matter what? Just how much will a fledgling eat?

It's the end of the day and Little Chip is still eating. And with unlimited seed from the feeders, his attentive parents, and his new found foraging skills he can't truly be hungry, can he? No wonder he has to really get flapping to lift himself off the ground.

Brown-headed Cowbird, Molothrus ater
Speaking of little eating machines, this is not a case of "I'm not fat I'm just fluffy". This relentlessly begging Cowbird chick is a real pork chop. He spends the day begging madly and persistently. He is loud. He is utterly continuous and you can hear him for great distances. People who don't even look at birds notice him. The man on the street, can't help but ask, "What IS that sound?" This chick is the most intense I've ever seen and he is being fed my both his male and female Chipping Sparrow foster parents, all day, every day.
Spoiled rotten? That could be S.R.'s issue. He's never had to compete and he doesn't wait patiently unless he falls into an over fed induced snooze.
Through the neighbor who's bush he was hatched in, I've gotten a bit of Spoiled Rotten the Cowbird chick's history. For whatever reason, perhaps the Cowbird female nicked the Sparrow's eggs, S.R. was the only hatch in that nest. Both parents have fed him continually since day one. A full week before he was ready to fledge, he'd become so heavy that the nest made for Chipping Sparrow young had lost half it's moorings and was hanging at a distinct slant. Filling the entire bowl of the nest, chunky S. R. had to hold on with his feet not to fall out if there was a stiff breeze.
So he is sedentary as he has had no siblings. He isn't using any energy following the adults. He just sits on his branch and caterwauls. Though that much caterwauling has to use a certain number of calories now that I think about it.

Ah, what a relief. He's stopped. A respite for the rest of us, S.R. catches a little nap before the next round.
One thing I've begun to notice. Though the Cowbird chicks have a definite genetic advantage over their hosts young in the nest, once out of it, at least according to my limited observations with the local Cooper's hawk, in a mixed group of fledglings, the Cooper's goes for the Cowbird fledge.
Whether because it is bigger or slower I don't know, as the Cooper's Hawk never stays around long enough for conversation. He's off to feed his own fledglings.
Donegal Browne