Sunday, April 29, 2007

Kat digiscopes!

Kat and I were working in the yard--mowing the lawn, finishing planting, cleaning tools, pressure-washing the outhouse to prep it for repainting, and other things--when we saw one, and then two HUGE white birds on the marsh. Two great egrets! I tried to digiscope some shots of one of them in the Heron Tree (its new official name), but I just couldn't get at the right angle. This was my best effort:

After listening to me whine about getting my tripod tomorrow, the passing cloud that obscured the sun momentarily, the wind, the grass tickling my feet, etc., Kat finally just said, "Give me that scope." She walked to one of the fence posts, put the scope (on its little table-top mount) on the post, took the camera, and started to focus the scope! Kat was digiscoping!

Now this is a great advance in our civilization, folks. This is Kat, who doesn't really like birds because
"They're creepy."
"They have beady little eyes that stare at you."
"The little baby birds are ugly."
So for her to first admire the egrets, then start to help me photograph them, well, it's just like one small step for Delia, one giant leap for Kat-kind!

Admittedly, she didn't do too well, but her photos were actually better than anything I got. Here are the best two; she doesn't really use my camera very often, so she didn't understand about getting it to focus, or about zooming for vignetting. And I was NOT about to make any suggestions; she likes to learn things on her own. Her best results:

Not great, admittedly, but wait until we get a tripod! I then explained to her about the auto-focus, the vignetting, the fact that the camera is not optimal for digiscoping because of the external zoom -- she listened to all of it, even! Then my new assistant offered this helpful note:

"Oh! Big white birds! Flying away!"

The digiscoping was over.

We watched for them for about an hour, relaxing in the Adirondack chairs, but those birds could sense when I would turn my camera off to save the battery; that's when they'd make a little circle around what I presume is their nest and then settle back down again, hidden by the marsh grasses. Even Kat said they were just taunting me.

I thought about taking a walk into the marsh, but we had so much to do in the yard; I just didn't want to stop working on such a beautiful day.

Some birding club members are coming out here on Wednesday night to case some locations for the upcoming Birding Cup competition, so I can't wait to tell Roana that in addition to sora, Virginia rail, American bittern, and great blue heron, she might get a great egret! Boy, this marsh just rocks so hard; I love living here!

The garden grows!

My grand plan to roto-till and compost my veggie garden this weekend worked, with Nature’s grudging permission. Under a cloudy and sometimes drizzly sky, Kat and I roto-tilled until we could roto-till no more. I would’ve captured this with photos but (a) it didn’t occur to me and (b) I would’ve been too exhausted to even press the shutter. The ground was damp, but not too wet to work. Still, tilling hard ground is difficult, and Kat has a broken finger in a big splint! But my baby worked that roto-tiller until it dropped. And she dropped. And I dropped.

One of my sore arms; my right hand is still so shaky I can barely auto-focus:

Can you see the pain? Look at my blister!

But it was all worth it! Here is the (almost) final result (I still have a lot of seeds to plant):

Kat re-designed my old layout, moving the door and pulling the fence in off the lawn a few feet. To compensate for those lost few feet, we planted the tomatoes, which the bunnies rarely bother, in the bed near the house:

Once the daffodils die out and the toms grow taller, I’m hoping to stake them into some sort of obedience within this smaller space. I don’t know if it will work, but Kat’s confident, so I am too.

The unfenced feet, then, will house Kat’s flowers, two blueberry bushes, a blackberry, a raspberry, and some eggplant, which we’ll train up onto the arch. (I’ll be spraying the little plants with hot-pepper spray, to deter bunnies.)

The blueberry:

That big stick is just a marker; the tiny twig I'm holding is the blueberry plant. Er--it's gonna take a while to get established.
Some flowers:

The ever-growing compost heap, now covered with mushroom compost:

A pretty little bug on a dandy flower:

I love those little curly--I guess they’re stamens?

I hope this year’s garden turns out better than last year’s. Last year, we didn’t roto-till and I didn’t weed. I was very involved in beginning to bird and starting this blog, so I admit I kind-of paid less attention to the garden than I should have. However, I did dig the fence down after several bunny disasters cost me my lettuce and cilantro a few times. Still, it was an untidy place, and the yield was disappointing.

Going back to the archives, I found my second-ever post, entitled My Birdy Thoughts, on this blog:

What I'd like to have happen on this blog at some point:
1. photos of birds
2. a digiscoping camera thingie to take photos of birds
3. my life list
4. someone big-time like Birdchick reading my blog--even once!
5. questions for other beginning birders

I realized all these things have happened, even#4. Birdchick even chose one of Niblet’s disapproving photos for her Disapproving Rabbits book! It’s gratifying to look back and see what I’ve accomplished. My lifelist has practically doubled (which isn’t saying that much, as it’s still fewer than 100 birds), I’ve got a decent beginner’s digiscoping rig (which will be complete once my tripod arrives tomorrow by UPS!), and I’ve certainly posted lots of bird photos and questions for other birders, both beginners and experienced ones. I’m getting a little teary-eyed. . . .

So I’ll leave you with these links to two posts from August 2006, about Niblet’s experience in the weedy garden.
Part 1 and
Part 2

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Squirrel nest-building!

Kat and I were walking onto campus this afternoon and I saw a brownish-colored squirrel, rummaging around in a nest-like bunch of twigs about 20 feet from the ground, in a birch tree. I thought at first that he might be preying on the eggs of some bird; however, I quickly realized he (or she?) was building a nest!

I wish I could tell you I have some great photos or even video, but I had nothing with me to capture this magical moment! My description will have to suffice. Sorry!

The squirrel would hop from thick trunk to trunk, looking for twigs. He then nibbled the twigs off, usually to a length of 10-15 inches (from what I could judge from the ground). Then he would secure the twig in his mouth, hop back over to the nest in the crook of a large branch, and weave the twig into place. I watched for about ten minutes as he did this, twig after twig. I tried to remain hidden, but it's possible that he saw me and was spooked; he hopped his way over to an adjoining oak, then disappeared.

I never knew that squirrels even built nests, much less nests in trees. But now I've seen one in construction. I just wish I'd had my camera. He was really cute.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Focus on the Family

No, don't worry; this is most definitely NOT the Colorado-based, super-far-right, anti-choice, anti-anything-but-right-wing-weirdos Focus on the Family. (No, I'm not linking to it, either!) This post is a focus on our family, or more precisely, our kitties and bunny. It all started because I got probably the best photo of Clawsie ever taken today (she doesn't even look like she's going to scratch your eyes out!) so I figured I needed to post it right away! Then, of course, everyone wanted equal time, so we'll start the roll call. I'll even include all their various nicknames!

It took about ten minutes of coaxing, petting, snapping pictures, and luck to get this shot of Miss Kitty Claws, aka Clawsie, aka Miss Nasty Face. Here, though, she looks positively exorcised of her usual evil:

I was even lucky enough to catch all the kitties sitting on the Little Tower of Kitty Power today. Of course, they were all bird-watching, as is their habit:

From top to bottom, Sweet Kitty Kisses, aka Kisses, aka Sweet Girl; Sweet Sugar Cookies, aka Cookies, aka The Little One; and Clawsie, aka The Fat One, aka The Little Bear.

Finally, here's little Niblet, aka Nibble, aka My-Little-Son-Moon-and-Stars, aka Nibbelette doing a funny little pose:

Kat's not about having her pic on the blog, and you've already seen me at Cape May, so that is the end of the show!

Graduation night, birding morning

Coming up with titles for these posts is sometimes difficult, but the one above covers the signficant events of the past 24 hours, so there it is.

First, Kat and I, Joche, Kelly, and a friend's two children Ben and Sarah attended Kat's Lavender Graduation. This is an intimate, special ceremony held at PSU to honor LGBTA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and allies) graduates. (Kat finished her first M.S. (in Human Development and Family Studies) in August; she still has the PhD to go, of course, plus another M.S. in Applied Statistics. Yeah. Insert confused expression here.) It was a really neat graduation ceremony--certainly far superior to, say, my high school graduation where we had to endure a woman singing "Climb Every Mountain" from The Sound of Music, followed by the hours-long parade of about 700 students across the stage. Oy vey.

At Lavender Graduation, there is a dinner (all vegetarian!), then a Significant Other Award ceremony, where the graduate goes up and reads a dedication to someone (or someones) who helped him or her succeed. There were parents, best friends, partners, and children. Kat pulled me onstage, gave me a rose, and said,

Because you have nourished my body, spririt, and soul... because you give me serenity in knowing that things will happen as they were meant to happen... because you walked the line carefully between our desires and my needs... because you have shared the joy and pain of every exam, every deadline, and every sentence misplaced... because you never complained about reading another draft... because even when you lost my keys, you found them again... you are my significant other."

Oh dear, the keys... Let's just say that more than once, I've had to had to make a special trip home to give Kat her keys, which mysteriously found their way into my pocket and went to work with me....

Anyway, then there was a speaker, then the grads walked across and were presented with a really neat stole and a degree certificate. It was really neat; even the kids (12 and 7) enjoyed it and were perfect little angels during the entire 3-hour affair.

This morning, then, I woke up about 8:30 with Clawsie in my face, demanding breakfast. Once that big bear gets in your face, you really have to get up; otherwise, she's knocking things off the nightstand, gently gnawing on exposed bits of skin, biting your hair, and generally being a nuisance. "She's always hungry. She always needs to feed."

So I listened to the morning songs of the birds and as usual, heard so many songs I was overwhelmed. Let me describe a few for you, because even though I went out with binocs and camera, confident I could find the source of the calls (they sounded so close by!) I didn't see any birds making these noises! That's so frustrating to me; I'll hear the sound, I'll scan in the direction, sure I will see some warbler or thrush or whatever, and NOTHING! I think all the brown birds just mix into the very brown background of leafless trees or something.

Here's a view of where a lot of the birdsongs were coming from; this is the view across the street:

I saw a bunch of American goldfinches, but they were too fast for my camera. They're in full breeding plumage now, and I saw males and females. We usually got a lot of them, especially in the summer when the thistle is in full bloom across the road.

Now back to the songs, or at least my transcription of what I heard:
1. PER-doo-dee-PER-doo-dee-PER-doo-dee: This sound had the rhythm of a witchety-witchety or a teakettle-teakettle, but it really didn't sound like either of those.
2. dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee all on the same note, then shifting up about a fourth to repeat on that note: this one was really strange; first time I've heard it here. I would've thought "Sam Peabody-Peabody-Peabody" but it wasn't like that at all. It was a monotonous sound, same kind-of flat note, then shifting up to a higher note.
3. two notes that sounded almost like a wolf whistle, only less leering and more like a “hey there” whistle. But not a phoebe.

There were millions more, but these are the ones I was able to isolate and transcribe. It's so frustrating to me that I can have a great ear for music (I taught myself to play guitar by ear, and I was a monster clarinet player in school), yet bird songs somehow just escape me.

The guy at work who's a birder, Hillel, told me that it takes a lot of time to train your ear for bird songs and that I just have to be patient. But it's hard! Those of you who've read my blog from the beginning know that I am NOT a patient learner; I just seem to expect myself to start something, learn it quickly, then master it just as quickly. That's how I roll--in most things. But birding is by far the most difficult thing I've undertaken in a long time. I guess that might be why I love it so much.

(There's a mourning dove right outside my window, just pecking for seeds and hanging out. The cats are mesmerized. Such good birders they are!)

So--I didn't get photos of these songbirds. However, I got some other photos on my little walk around the house, so I'll show you those.

I stepped out to find a benneh next to the fence:

Chet Baker would've freaked!

Then I found a mysterious hole just right up against the front of the house:

Who made this hole? A bunny? Look at the footprints. Maybe Science Chimp will help out here. So is this guy living under my house now? Perhaps I should check the basement....

I watched several birds flitting around in the yew tree beside the house; I didn't get any good pics though. But I did find some unfortunate nest issues:

Did these blow out of the tree? Did some picky female judge them inferior and demand a do-over?

We planted these little white flowers last spring, but then prompty forgot what the heck they were called:

Anyone? Anyone?

By now I'd rounded my way around the front and the side of the house, to the backyard. I have a pine tree back here that doesn't look so good. Part of it looks like this:

But part of it looks like this:

Should I be concerned? It is awfully wet back there, on the fenceline next to some sort of drain-looking structure:

No idea what's going on here. This house was built in the 1830s, and in the time since then I imagine there have been many tenants, each of whom had their own little ideas about home improvement. As a result, there are a lot of things I don't understand about the house and the grounds. But back to the tree--do you think it's okay?

Somehow, this egg looks like it was the victim of a predator; it looks like the yolk and white were not quite entirely sucked out:

I found this whole cracked egg in the old veggie garden. Sad. It had obviously developed past the yolk/white stage:

Oh dear.

But enough sadness. I saw a white-throated sparrow; I thought these guys had all gone farther north already, but I guess not:

The marsh today, still rather brown and dead:

Is this a turkey vulture?

Luckily, he was just flying over and didn't find anything to interest him here.

Daffodils, photographed in too much sunlight:

The promise of beautiful purple irises:

The flowering bush in front of Neighbor Ed's house:

The turkey-tail mushroom out on the stump:

And look at this!

I planted these onion sets last year, harvested only a few small onions, and suspected the rest had just frozen and died! But not these onions. Looks like I'll be able to make fresh home-grown salsa again this year!

That does it! I'm going to the plant nursery! I can't wait any longer! Au revoir!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

No more nachos at Allen St. Grill, and a birdfest!

Last night, we went to one of my favorite places, Allen St. Grill, to hear Molly and Ted sing; Molly's in Kat's PhD program, and she's a great singer and piano player. We also usually have nachos when we go to Allen St., piled high with cheese, guacamole, vegetarian chili, salsa, and sour cream. Most times, I get heartburn afterwards, but I can usually stave off anything worse with a stout dose of Maalox.

Not this time.

Suffice it to say, I think I've had my last nacho at Allen St. Grill. Goodbye, my wonderful nachos! Alas, we must part.

Despite the fact that I'm still not feeling too good, I had to come down and post this exciting news! I found out there was a birding festival going on in the "Oil Region" of PA, over to the northeast of us, and I initially hadn't given it too much thought--I mean, it's right around finals week, it'll be busy, etc.--until I found out that none other than Julie Zickefoose will be speaking there and leading a birdwalk, giving a talk at a dinner, etc.!

This changed the stakes dramatically: one of my birding heroes at a birding festival specifically targeted to beginning birders. I had to go! The planning is still being ironed out, but I can't wait to go on a birding walk with Julie Zickefoose--a real pro! I'll finally be able to see how real birders go out in the field and pick birds out of the dense and leafy trees, how they approach them, how they listen for special calls and songs. I'm so excited, I can hardly sit still. The festival is set for May 10-12, and I'll probably be driving out there with Niki and Ian, and staying at Niki's mom's house. I'm so pumped!

And I'm so exhausted. I think it's back to bed with me, where I'll continue my libations of apple cider and Maalox, my napping, and my re-reading of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, in anticipation of the release of the final HP book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and the next HP movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I'd put in links to all these, but I'm just too sick right now.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A day on the marsh

Yesterday afternoon, after I'd already logged my last post, I thought I was done birding for the day--then I looked in the backyard:

My first flicker! Judging from the red only on the nape, I'm guessing this is a yellow-shafted flicker. Lifer! He posed so graciously, pecking in the grass for probably three minutes before taking off. Wow.

I also caught this finch:

Is that a purple finch? I love his wistful little expression; I sense some disapproval in there.

Of course, this got me all birdy again, so I decided to take a walk up Shook Hollow, a road I used to walk a lot last year, and on which I saw all kinds of birds and beautiful scenery. However, as I passed the marsh, I thought I saw two wood ducks on the marsh pond--two ducks with stripey faces, anyway--so of course I had to check it out. I decided to ignore the potential for ticks and head out.

The marsh's owner has been kind enough to mow some beautifully maintained paths throughout the marsh, so I stuck to those to see what I could see:

The marsh landscape:

Long Pond (my own name for it; it's the biggest stretch of open water right now):

I saw a lot of these:

Whose poo is this? It's almost as big as the kittys'! I'm guessing Canada geese?

I walked alongside Long Pond and saw the usual Canadas (near the poo, hence my guess above) and mallards:

a muskrat, hiding from me in the grass:

and a TON of tree swallows, including this pair, nesting (I hope) in a box that Mr Marsh Owner Guy put up:

Just pretend the vignetting is "for effect."
This is my first ID of a tree swallow--another lifer!. I'd always thought those swallows flying over the marsh were barn swallows, because they nest in Neighbor Ed's barn. But these are different, without the reddish-brown neck and underparts coloring that makes barn swallows so beautiful. But look at the irridescent blue! They were just beautiful, flying over the ponds and dipping down for bugs, then soaring and banking. Beautiful birds.

I came to the end of Long Pond and looked up:

That's the back of my house (the one at ground level)! You'll note the house up on the hill--that's the neighbor across the street, whose house I can't even see unless I'm way back here. He must have quite a view!

I'm sure you're wondering whether I saw my nemesis bird, the great blue heron. Answer: I saw SOMETHING. Throughout this trip, I saw glimpses of a heron, mostly flying around:

But of course he was taunting me, daring me to catch him in flight before he landed and disappeared into the grass.

However, on my way back home, he decided to grant me an audience:

Where is the crest of wispy feathers on the head and on the body? Is this a female great blue? I beseeched her: May I come closer? She nodded her head in assent, and I crept closer:

Still--no wispy feathers. Is this really a great blue? I'd have to check my field guide when I got home. For now,
I savored this moment and relaxed. I was practically in tears at this point! Normally, I'm all about zooming in as close as I possibly can, but I realized that if I backed off a little on the zoom, I could catch the bird's reflection in the water.

It was truly a Mike McDowell or Lillian Stokes moment for me. The focus may not be tack-sharp, but I really love that photo. I'm glad I took a moment to calm down and really compose the photo, even if it was horrible lighting (overcast) and my little Coolpix on zoom. I doubt I'll ever be able to step up to high-end professional equipment, but I'm learning more about photography every day, and I really like it.

Then, as quickly as she'd appeared, she withdrew:

I felt honored to have spent a few moments in her presence. I'm guessing this is a female blue heron, but in my Stokes guide, I saw a tricolored heron, but I'm probably overthinking this ID (as usual). The tricolored's range is barely into Central PA, so it's possible, but let's face it--it's not probable. Can someone just calm me down out there and confirm this ID?

By now, it was getting late; I had to get back home. A few highlights:
Looks like someone's spring breeding suit is almost finished:

This must be last year's nest for someone:

While passing a thicket of reeds and shallow water, I could swear I heard what the Stokes call the "pumper-lunk" of an American bittern. I would describe it as a "g-glunk" noise. I stared into the reeds, hoping for a glimpse, but I was so close that she was probably frozen and invisible by now, deep within the densely growing reeds. But that's a good sign! I hope the bittern is back.

Whose hole is this?

What is this plant? It's furry like lamb's-ear, but it looks like a cabbage or a lettuce-head. What is it?

The road home, complete with biker: