Sunday, February 25, 2007

Driving around Sinking Creek

A friend, Amy, took me home the other day, and she took a road I wasn't familiar with--Sinking Creek Road. What a great place! Here are some photos from there, though I was disappointed that I didn't get any shots of birds. Those little buggers out there in the field are much faster than the guys at the feeders--not weighed down with seed and suet, I guess!

And look at this:

That must be where the water has lapped, frozen, then lapped again, frozen again, etc. I'd never seen that. Remember that in Texas, there aren't a lot of rivers or streams. Or water.

I saw a cardinal who was already beginning to molt; his head was beet-red, but the rest of him was varying shades of red and brownish-red. Is he getting ready to dazzle the ladies? Is he about to enter his first breeding/mature season? That would be my guess. At any rate, he posed just long enough for me to raise my camera, then he hid in a bramble of multiflora rose, and I couldn't get a shot of him.

As I drove down the road slowly, looking for interesting stuff (and places where I could safely pull off), I saw a chain of three or four male cardinals, flying fast! Staking out territory already? Oh, I hope this means spring is right around the corner!

I saw only a few birds: some chickadees, some starlings, the cardinals. I heard some other calls, but nothing I recognized. I need to listen to my Lang Elliot songbird CD (and the cats go wild!) and figure out what I heard.

Look at this crazy tree:

The wrinkles reminded me of Ann Richards' face, that great lady of Texas and national politics; may she rest in peace. She was as tough as this tree, you know--no matter what obstacles she faced, she just overcame them. Texas was still a great state (and in the black) when she was governor. Then, HE came along.... Whoa! look at the tiny "orb" in that second picture, over to the right. Is that Ann?!

It was too beautiful a day to worry about idiots in D.C. so we'll move on:

You know how I love those daytime moon shots. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut sooooo badly; then I learned that you had to be really good in math. There went that dream.

Here, I was trying to do one of those shots where the water looks all blurry, but I couldn't do it. I don't know if it was my camera's inabilities (all I could change was the modes) or the fact that the water just wasn't moving enough.

There was a little snow-covered island, with lots of little footprints on it:

Little duck prints? While getting this photo, by the way, I did something really dumb: I grabbed onto a nearby branch for support in the shifting snow on which I was standing. Bad move:

Tip: NEVER grab onto a branch before you look at it. Ouch.

I tried to capture the beautiful depth of the trees here; this is the best I got:

Nearer to town (Spring Mills), I found some mallards. I tried to capture some "irridescence" for SusanGetsNative's daughter to see:

"Honey, will you please straighten those feathers?" "I'm trying, dear!"

Thanks to Amy for showing me this neat road and Sinking Creek.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Niblet's appointment, Feederwatch notes

This morning I took Niblet in for a checkup before I would schedule his neutering. He didn't enjoy it all; I didn't take pictures because I spent the whole time holding him, petting him, or feeling bad for him. He checked out perfectly fine, though, so I went ahead and scheduled his procedure. Little does he know.... I'm worried about the whole thing, but Dr. Jones assured me it would be all right, and it might stem some of his more territorial behaviors, i.e. leaving poos everywhere. His new spot is right in front of the cat's downstairs litty; they're not thrilled with having to step over him on their way to the loo during one of his "sessions."

On our way home, I spotted a huge hawk in a field, eating. I decided to turn around and try to photograph him, but he'd already taken off. I then slowly followed him to a tree:

Then he flew to another tree, farther from the road. He was beautiful in flight, all white with tiny brown streaks underneath--chest and wings. I'm guessing Cooper's hawk, because of the long tail, but he was not very streaky-breasted. He looked more red-tail in that sense, but that tail is too long. Raptor experts, please help. I wish I could've photographed him in flight, but honestly, I knew I would miss him--no way I'd be able to get him in view of the lens, focus, and snap. I'd end up missing the joy of just watching him.

I tried to remember my good birding ethics, and I was probably at least 200 yards from him the whole time, but I imagine that while he's used to cars flying by at 65, he's not used to them stopping anywhere near him--maybe? So he went back to a treeline perch, where I hit the max digi-zoom:

I really need to get a good tripod and start taking my spotting scope with me. My attempts to bino-scope were fruitless. After a few more blurry photos, I figured I'd bothered him enough, so we came home. Niblet brooded a little bit, to show me his displeasure at being "handled," but he's too good-natured to stay broody for long. I gave him a big old carrot piece, so he's a very happy boy now. He goes in for "the snip" about three weeks from now; I'll probably take the morning off to go with him. Poor sweet boy.

All this happened before 11 o'clock, so after a good breakfast, I went back to start my FeederWatch count for this weekend, and as usual it was almost all sparrows, all the time. Got some good photos, though, which I thought I'd share.

When I lived in town (State College), I had a lot of juncos coming to my feeder. Out here, however, they're a rarity. Only once since I started my feederwatch counts have I ever seen more than 1 at a time. I love them, though:

I've always found it difficult to photograph black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice because they flit in, grab a seed, and fly off, all in just a second or two. Today, though, I got pretty lucky. Here's the titmouse money shot (not a lot of money, mind you--this is my photography we're talking about here):

Not too terrible.

I got him perching, and then I got him flying away! Look how his tail is kind-of tucked forward--why is that?

So--to the other sparrows. Tree sparrows have such garishly russet heads that I really like them:

I got another "flappy" photo as well:

Maybe I should try putting the camera on "burst," so it takes a bunch of photos in rapid succession, and I might get more of these rather interesting photos. I like to see wings spread out.

The birds are loving the brushpiles I've built, especially now that the snow has mostly melted and the branches are exposed again:

The day is so beautiful, clear and cold, with a brilliant sun and a butane-blue sky:

I have to attribute "butane-blue" sky to an old friend, Kris Patterson, who wrote those words in a song almost twenty years ago. Wow--it's been a long time since I lived in Austin (1988-1990).

I leave you with this photo of the titmouse after he's just left the suet feeder:

Friday, February 23, 2007

Thanks to LauraHinNJ’s extensive list of fascinating and beautiful blogs, I’ve discovered Mary’s View, and last week she posted a game of tag. The “rules” are to list at least five things that most people don’t know about you. You’re supposed to then tag another six people, but I’m not doing that part. Here goes with the stuff most people don’t know.

I just typed a neat little 1. and then just sat here for like five minutes. What don’t most people know? Looking at some other people’s lists, I saw a lot of food and housework related stuff. I think everyone knows I hate housework, so there’s no mystery there. Oh wait! I just thought of one:

1. Even though I’m vegetarian and have been almost five years, I still (gulp) sometimes crave a steak or hot wings or barbecue. There! I said it! Honestly, I do sometimes crave the ease of throwing a chicken breast into the oven with a few spices on it, but I think that if I were faced with a plate of meat of any sort, I would probably push it away. I became a vegetarian both because of Kat and to protest the large-scale agriculture operations that run feedlots and steal away animals’ lives. Plus I love their sweet little faces! Still—it was easier being a meat-eater.

Okay—number 2. Hmm…. This is kinda hard!

2. I hate zoos. I realize that many animals are saved from poaching, etc., by zoos, but I just don’t like going to zoos. If I were an animal, I would not enjoy being stared at all day, so I just don’t go.

3. Sometimes I think about going back to teaching. This is something I really don’t share with anyone, because then there would be pressure to DO IT. And on the whole, I don’t want to go back. I sometimes miss the joys of having a student “get it” and I definitely miss my old teaching colleagues, but the grind of disinterested students, “13th graders” (the kind who still gossip, write notes to their classmates, do their makeup, etc. in class, even though they’re now in college and supposed to be adults), grading 150 papers a week—I definitely will NEVER miss that! Still, it wasn’t a bad job, and it had its good points.

4. I wish I could become a movie director. I love watching those extra features on DVDs now, all about the making of a film, the director’s trials and travails, and all that. It’s interesting to me, and I think it would be fun to hang out in cool locations and make an interesting film about something that matters.

5. I am terrified of getting older. I see a few gray hairs on my head, and I’m freaked out. Should I dye it? Should I just let my head go salt-and-pepper, then silver? I don’t know! How fast will happen? I don’t really have any wrinkles yet (I’m 42), but will I suddenly start getting them? Will I finally start to look my age?

So--there's some information that most people don't know about me.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Snowed in, called out

I got up Wednesday morning, the morning of the big snowstorm, fully intending to go to work. I looked outside and yeah, it looked bad. The road was white with packed-down ice from the few drivers who'd ventured out, and the car--well, we park right next to the road rather than on our steep driveway when it snows--the car was buried under about two feet of powder and plowed snow from the road. Still, I got in the shower and made Kat's coffee, thinking that she might still want to go to school.

I got out of the shower and woke Kat, who said the university, which NEVER closes due to snow, was closed, so why was I waking her up? At this point, I realized that we probably weren't going to get the car out of its icy tomb, and I wasn't going to work. It was just as well, because I took the day to read, from cover to cover, my Audubon guide to backyard birdwatching and feeding. What a great book! I took little notes (like the English major I am), planned some bird-friendly spring plantings (I'll blog on that closer to spring), and kept the feeders out back filled. Exhausting day! Somehow, I managed to cram a viewing of Return of the King and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in there too! I know, I know--I'm a dynamo.

Boy, did those birds eat yesterday. I read in my Audubon book that more mourning doves will come to feeders during hard snows and colder weather; I saw proof of that yesterday. As it's gotten colder this winter, I've noticed that each week, I get a couple more doves, and since the big snowfall they decided that my al fresco grill was the place to be. I had twelve birds at one time, setting a MODO record.

I also had white-throated, song, and tree sparrows; dark-eyed juncos; two female (never seen more than one a time) and one male cardinal; bluejays; black-capped chickadees; the downy and the red-bellied woodpecker; white-breasted nuthatches; tufted titmice; and one female house finch. They eat continually throughout the constant snowfall, and I filled the one hanging feeder nearest the house three times and scattered seed underneath each time. Of course, they had to dig for it only a few minutes after each time, and I tried to help them with that by digging with my boot down to the buried stuff.

I took some photos but they're not too great. Some are through the porch window, and even the ones taken outside suffer from not enough light:

Isn't he handsome? I love me some Mr. Cardinal.

This next picture reminds me of a great song:

"I'm not waiting on a lady,
I'm just waiting on a friend."

I also read in my book that unlike brown creepers or woodpeckers, nuthatches can go up or down a tree thanks to their toe structure and the fact that they don't need to prop themselves up with their tail feathers. Neat.

The marsh and backyard:

I wonder what he's thinking. Probably something like, "It's sure gonna suck to dig that car out tomorrow." My sore back, shoulders, and neck can attest to that, little sparrow.

Monday, February 12, 2007

What's that sound?

Listen! I believe I hear the short and sweet “help-me-help-me” cry of a beginning birder trying to ID sparrows!

I’ve always liked sparrows a lot, despite (or perhaps because?) my fourth grade grammar teacher Mrs. West said that sparrows were "the laziest birds," feeding opportunistically on whatever humans leave behind. I wanted to ask her why this meant the birds were “lazy”--it seemed to me that they were just taking advantage of messy humans and cleaning up after us. What’s lazy about that? Besides, sparrows are cute. I didn’t say anything aloud, however. I wasn’t much of a class talker when I was a kid, especially not in that class. She was a nice enough lady, and I really dug the way she always had a handbag and shoes to match every outfit. My favorite was this white cotton dress with pictures of little carrots on it, with matching orange pumps and orange handbag. Who has a dress with carrots on it, you know? But what kept me quiet was the fact that she was really tall and intimidating, and I was so small. She would constantly tease me about getting blown away by the wind on the playground (I was maybe three feet tall in fourth grade--maybe--I was little). This idea terrified me, so I wasn’t about to knock her theory on sparrows.

Anyway, I had a lot of sparrows at the feeders today, so I thought I’d do a little photographic study of them and try to learn more about their behavior and their markings. My sources, once I came back inside, were my Stokes’ field guide, my old Peterson’s field guide, Bill Thompson III’s Identify Yourself (Jimmy Carter did a blurb on the back? wow!), and Robert Burton and Stephen W. Kress’s The Audubon Backyard Birdwatcher: Birdfeeders and Bird Gardens.

Okay--I’ll build my confidence with an easy ID: one of the more common sparrows in my backyard, the white-throated sparrow:

I tried to capture the markings on their crowns and napes, which are quite striking:

And is this the cutest little bird booty you’ve ever seen?

So--no challenge there; that white throat patch and the yellow eyebrows make this the easiest sparrow ID for me.

White-crowned sparrows are also easy, but I didn’t see any today. Suffice it to say, I’m good on this sparrow.

Song sparrows are fairly easy to identify with that “stick pin” spot and streaky breast and flanks. Bill of the Birds wrote that a few sparrows have that center “stick pin” spot, so watch out for that. Still, I’m confident that I can spot a song sparrow. Here’s a couple of shots of an individual on the feeder:

Here, you can see the streaked flanks and the long tail:

So far, so good.

Next comes the American tree sparrow. I thought I was pretty good with this one, but after staring at my photos and my many field guides and bird books, I started to get a little shaky! Always over-analyzing everything. Still, I feel fairly confident about these, with their rufous crowns, gray breasts, and light breast spots:

During my post-photo-shoot study, I learned that tree sparrows have what the Stokes call a “two-toned bill--upper bill dark, lower bill yellow.” Once I’d read that, I went back to the previous photos--I think I see the dark upper and yellow lower, but today’s shots were all taken with the Nikon CP4800 on full digital zoom, through the window glass on the back porch--zooming in on their beaks just gives me a pixelated mess. So I went back through my 168 photos again, and I found some other shots where I think you can see the bill fairly well:

Jackpot--check out that dark upper bill and light (if not really yellow in this overcast daylight) lower bill!

So--three sparrows that are regular visitors to my feeders, plus the white-crowned sparrow. Of course, these are winter markings; will things look different in the spring?

Probably the neatest thing sparrows do is the way they kind scrape both feet back to pull grass out of the way to find seeds. Smart birds. And those pink feet just kill me--so cute.

There were a few other birds out there today, so I’ll show you these photos as well.

Here’s the downy performing some acrobatics on the hanging feeder:

Also in that last shot is another streaky bird I see a lot of: the female house finch. It took me a while to tell her from sparrows because she’s got that little-brown-bird-with-streaks thing going. Her body shape is different, however, and her beak is obviously finch-like. When closed, her wing feathers are really pretty from the back:

That last one features a blurry phantasm of a sparrow on its way to the hanging feeder--ghost bird!

I didn’t know that sparrows liked suet, but they do:

But now that I think about it, sparrows will eat just about anything, I guess. That suet's probably better than the french fries, pizza crusts, and other human litter they clean up.

I keep saying I’ve got to snap off some of the twigs around the suet feeder; it's messing up my shots of the feeder. Here, I’ve got great focus on the twigs, with a rather blurry background of a red-bellied woodpecker:

and this shot of a bluejay would’ve been nice, if you could see his face:

Strangely absent today were my cardinal pairs, male house finches, goldfinches, and white-crowned sparrows. I saw a couple of juncos, so that was nice--but I didn’t get any photos. I picked dark-eyed juncos as one of my top 10 most beautiful birds; they’re just so cute!

I think my favorite photos are the ones where the bird just doesn’t cooperate; one second he’s there, the next second, I get a photo of

Nice twigs.