Bird on a Wire

We used to have a road trip scavenger hunt. The idea was to check off items one might see out a car window. Stop sign, fuel truck, school, cows, that kind of thing. Whenever we played this game there was inevitably one item we could not find–a bird on a wire.

It was weird. It is not hard to see a bird on a wire most of the time. Even in winter there are birds and they are sometimes to be found on wires. But when we had that scavenger hunt in hand, and this happened many times, we could not find one. It became a joke in our family. We would be out walking in a new place, with no scavenger hunt list to check, and one of us would point and shout “Hey there’s a bird on a wire!”

I have not played that travel game in years but I still think of it, of those road trips, whenever I see a bird on a wire. I though of it today. After a day of way to much inside time, of too much computer work, of too little physical activity, I went outside with a pair of binoculars as the sun was setting. I didn’t have the binoculars to look at the setting sun. That would have been stupid. I had them to look at birds, were I to spot any. I did spot some. And one of them was on a wire.

Actually two of them were on a wire. Two bluebirds, singing their song that sounds like they are just too lazy to sing as boldly as anything like a Robin, flew onto and off of that wire. Blue birds against a blue sky with the low bright light of the closing of day in early spring–good stuff that. It was a beautiful sight and it was good to get outside and to move around a bunch and to listen and to look for our avian neighbors. And those birds, perched on that wire, reminded me of some good trips with my family.

I still think of that game when I see a bird on a wire while I am driving. I am not driving much these days. There is a chance I will do some driving tomorrow but that is still not a definite plan. I am staying home, along with the rest of the crew, most of the time. You know, stay home and stay safe. I mean, if I want to see a bird on a wire, apparently I can do that by walking down the road. No driving required.

Another Owl

I spent the last couple of days with my family in Stowe. It is a great place for what you might call a “staycation” as it is less than an hour away. We stayed at Trapp Family Lodge, as they have a special rate for Vermonters if you make a reservation close enough to your stay. We swam in the indoor pool and skied up to the rustic cabin (hot chocolate and soup on offer if you bring some cash) and sat by the fire and played games. It was a fine time.

On the way up we stopped in Waterbury–pulled off at Gregg Hill Road. We were looking for the Northern Hawk Owl. My daughter and I had stopped at the same spot a couple of weeks ago, looking for the same bird. We were out of luck that first time. And we were out of luck the second time. Bummer.

The Northern Hawk Owl doesn’t usually hang out this far south. They are generally Canadians, hanging out in open spruce woods. Occasionally, however, one of them takes a southern vacation. The temperature has been right I suppose. It was three degrees when we woke up this morning. That has been pretty typical this year. This whole week will be cold so the hawk owl might stick around for a bit yet.

This owl has been around since December. WCAX reported on it in December and the Burlington Free Press just had an article on it. Lots of people have seen it as reported on eBird and elsewhere. I wanted to see it. There was a hawk owl hanging around Vermont, in Waterbury even, ten years ago. They are not common in these parts and the chance won’t likely come again soon. I really wanted my daughter to see it. It is something she would probably remember for a long time. It was too bad that didn’t work out.

We left this afternoon and headed home. Since we were passing by, we pulled into Gregg Hill Road one more time. Why not try again? We slowly drove down the hill and my wife asked “How big is this bird?”

“Not that big,” I told her. “Smaller than a Barred Owl but pretty good-sized.” She has seen Barred Owls often enough to have a sense of their size.

“Well there is something in a tree back there.”

I pointed my binoculars and excitedly said “I think that’s it!”

And it was. It was kind enough to hang out long enough for us to look through binoculars and then a more powerful scope to check it out. It is a cool creature. It has the head of an owl but the body of a hawk, hence the not-so-original name. Awesome to see, and we all got to see it well. It was great way to end our trip over the mountains.

I may get a chance to see it again but I won’t count on it. By the time I get around to heading back that way again it will likely have headed back north. But maybe. Tomorrow morning I will look for another rare bird. A Tufted Duck, over from Europe, has been spotted several times on Lake Champlain. I am hoping to spot that one. I won’t hold my breath, as they say, but I’m feeling lucky.

Northern Hawk Owl in Waterbury

Northern Hawk Owl in Waterbury

Cold Day to Be Out

Beautiful Ski Day

Federal holiday? Check. Day off for me? Check. Cold? Yes sir.

The day started at our house at 14 degrees below zero. OK, it really started at 12 below when I first got up, then dropped to 14 below by sunrise. Cold enough to experiment with a Super Soaker filled with boiling water. Which I did not do. Every day can’t be perfect can it?

I took my daughter skiing today. We bundled up and headed to the slopes because it was a sunny day and we had the time and we should do it while the snow lasts. Vermont has this great program where every fifth grader can get a Ski Vermont Passport, which includes three passes to most ski areas in Vermont. She has one. Awesome, right? Except there are black out dates. The days when most people will be able to go are the days it does not apply. Love that crap. But we went anyway and paid way too much for a ticket for her even though it was way cheaper at Bolton Valley than at some other ski areas. That is why the passport is such a good deal. Just not today. Anyway, we went skiing and had a great time and there was plenty of snow and it was sunny as all get out and simply beautiful today. But it was cold and breezy. Maybe 15 degrees tops. We got cold hands and feet and took some runs and warmed them up and went inside to get warmer still and had a snack and called it halfway through the day.

After a sandwich in Waterbury we headed up Route 100. I tried hard, and pretty much succeeded, in convincing my daughter that we had a chance to see something amazing. A northern hawk owl has been hanging around Waterbury for a couple of months now. This resident of the far north rarely comes down our way and to have one so close is a chance to see something in nature that many people simply won’t ever get to see. It has stayed in the same general area and many people have had a chance to see it, but until today I have not tried to see it. I noted to my daughter that people are driving up to Waterbury from all parts to see this owl as it is their best chance to see one without having to head to the tundra. I learned that someone had seen the bird that very morning so I was hopeful.

Even on a bitter Monday afternoon we ran into six other people looking for the hawk owl. No one had seen it. We didn’t either. We stuck around for a while but were out of luck. Hopefully I will have another chance. It won’t stick around forever. So we headed home, warm in the car, quiet. A good morning of skiing, some fun together, a foray to find something interesting. Not a bad way to spend a Monday. Happy Presidents Day.

What Bird is This?

Thanks to Ohio-Nature.com

Yesterday during my early morning bird survey, I heard a bird I have heard many times in that same area.  I have looked it up in the past but still could not remember what bird it might be. I did not see it yesterday, but I remembered it to be yellowish in part, and I could tell it was a warbler. Of course, that hardly narrows it down.  There are almost as many yellowish warblers as there are reasons I don’t want to scrub the toilet. So I had to search. Again.

I took advantage of the birders tool of choice when trying to identify that mystery species:  Google. I just typed in “warbler songs and sounds” and up came several hundred thousand possible sources of just the right information.  Google led me right off to All About Birds, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This is a site I have used before and it is usually right on the money.  It mostly helped, but I had to search around a bit until I was sure I had the right bird.

I had in the back of my mind, a fuzzy memory from years past, that this was a Magnolia Warbler.  The song included on All About Birds was close but not quite what I was hearing.  The song I heard yesterday, and all the other days I have been up there, was consistent.  It did not vary one bird to the next or from year to year.  Two notes, two notes, three notes. One two, one two, one two three.  The songs I kept finding were similar, but not all the same as each other, and not the same as I was hearing.  But then, on a web site I did not mark and do not remember, I heard the song I needed to hear. It was my song.

Sure enough, I was right about Magnolia Warbler.  It was the right habitat, the right range and, now that I had confirmed it, the right song.  Done deal.

When Forgetting Pays Off

 

Visual of the Elusive Critter

Visual of the Elusive Critter

 

Last weekend I drove down to New Hampshire.  When I left on Friday I grabbed two things to pop into a mailbox, one of which was a DVD from Netflix to be returned.  I figured I would pass a mailbox at some point.  I picked up a friend to ride together and, once we got conversing, I totally forgot about the mail.  We arrived at our destination and I had to leave a random object (in this case a tin of mints) in front of the steering wheel to remind me to find a mailbox on the way home.

The tin of mints did its job.  It reminded me that I had left the mail under the seat and dutifully took it out to mail on the way home.  Since my friend and I rode home together again, however, I repeated my forgetfulness on the return journey.  I got home and the mail was still in my possession.  I dropped it in the mailbox to be picked up by our carrier the next day.  It was Sunday.

We had been watching the Indiana Jones series–four in a row was the plan.  We had watched the first three and the most recent, from last year, was on our itinerary for that Sunday.  The children fell asleep and I noticed that the disc I thought was the one we wanted was sealed in its return envelope.  I figured we had sealed it up by mistake and realized that it was the third movie.  I had put the wrong one in the mailbox.  At this point I was thinking how glad I was not to have found a mailbox it after all.  I would have sent away the film we were hoping to see.

So I headed down our long driveway to the mailbox.  It wasn’t dark yet, but it was getting there.  My wife had cut the lawn earlier in the day and I noticed a dark smudge on the edge of the driveway where the grass was newly clipped.  I wondered if she had run over something–some bark or old leaves or some plastic bag type item.  As I got right up to it, however, I realized that it was nothing that the lawnmower had mangled.  It was a snipe.

I had never seen a snipe, but I had seen photographs, and I had seen woodcocks, which look similar.  It is a small bird with a long thin beak, colored to blend in to the grass and about the size of a robin.  I have heard snipes many times and, to be honest, I have seen them in flight, way up against the dim sky.  They have a funky mating display in the spring where they make eerie low whistling noises at the tail ends of the day.  They are either hiding in the grass or too difficult to see clearly, since they fly typically when the light is low.

So I was pretty ecstatic to see one of these puppies.  But it was not alone.  It had a mottled chick, fuzzy and still next to it.  I walked right up to them and they did not move.  Obviously they were working under the camouflage principal–Don’t move and no one will see us since we look just like everything around us.  Good theory, but since they were on the nipped grass, it wasn’t working so well.  I watched them for a while before continuing to the mailbox.

I assumed they would split when I returned but they were still there.  I watched them again for a while and they did not move.  I felt like I would stress them out so I split.  Then I thought I might get a photo, so I dropped the red envelope, picked up my camera and headed back down the driveway.  My spouse was on the phone so she missed out.  It was still there, so I took a couple of poor photos, getting as close as I dared and zooming in with our lame zoom lens as close as it would go.  I took four photographs, all of which, how to say this simply, suck.

By the time my wife was off the phone and tried to find our avian friends, they had decided to find some taller grass.  She was out of luck.  I would say at least I had the photos, but they were not much help.  So the lessons here:

  1. It is OK to forget things sometimes as forgetting may lead one in a direction that offers treasure
  2. Take time to look around
  3. Tell your wife to get off the phone if you see a snipe and its chick hanging out right next to the driveway without moving
  4. Get a better camera

Father’s Day is coming up.  Maybe I will drop some hints about that camera.  The movie, by the way–Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull–was pretty good.  They managed to bring our hero back as a much older man in a believable and fun way.  The story itself may not have been believable but hey, it’s just a movie.

Phoebe in the Garage

A couple of months ago our garage door broke. Well, the door itself didn’t break. The door got frozen to the ground (snow melted, water ran under the door, water froze) and then we tried to open it. It was a simple yet dumb mistake. One of the cables on the door opener snapped. It can still marginally operate, albeit unsafely, with one cable, but lately we have just left it open.

Lately means the last month. This has made things easier in some ways. We don’t need to worry about the other cable snapping while we take our time actually getting the thing fixed, for example. But it has created a couple problems as well.

The first problem is the trash. We don’t generate all that much trash. We recycle or compost most things. Our trash consists mainly of plastic packaging. But some stinky stuff gets in there. It isn’t much but it is enough, apparently, to attract some critters. I found the small bag I placed in the garage a week and a half ago torn asunder yesterday. Some critter decided it was worth rumaging through the plastic packaging to lick the residue.

The second problem is the phobe. I like phoebes. They are one sure sign of spring and their songs always make me smile. I heard one this morning and its call seemed to echo more than usual. It sounded quite lovely, actually. It echoed, however, because the bird was in the garage. It flitted among the rafters but it didn’t seem to want to leave.

It was still there this afternoon. Or at least it was back this afternoon. It sort of freaked out my daughter at first but then she thought it was cool. A bird in the garage! What a treat. Again, it didn’t want to leave, despite the wide open door. My fear is that it will build a nest and then we will get the door fixed (not that we have been exactly hasty in making that happen) and it will have a tough time with the in and out of things and it will have chicks and they will all die of starvation because mom can’t bring it any bugs.

Poor chicks. OK, there aren’t any chicks yet. I saw no signs of a nest. But it could happen, right? I suppose even it that scenario really played out the phoebe mother could poke through the trash for what it might find to feed the youngsters. That might work.

We don’t have a third problem yet. At least not that I am aware of. But that could happen, too. We should get the door fixed and we should get a trash bin and we should stop buying things with so much plastic packaging. Save the phoebes!

At least we are saving electricity by not using the garage door opener. That’s something isn’t it. Plus, we get to see the phoebe up close, even it we are about to slay its offspring by fixing something we should have repaired months ago.

Avian Eats

I put up the bird feeders a little late this year.  Usually we get them up right around the time of the ground freezing solid.  Those little flittering creatures must have a harder time finding treats once things freeze up, right?  I know, of course, that this is not really true, but it provides a good reason to get the feeders out.

I managed to get them out last week, before the new year turned.  At least I can say I hung them in December.  I only hung two as the peanut feeder (a wire mesh tube made for nuts) seems to be missing.  Maybe the squirrels broke into the garage and carried it off, hoping to crack its secrets.  Of the two out there now, one contains sunflower seeds and the other contains thistle.

Today the birds finally discovered them.  They were some forlorn food offerings for a few days, but now the chickadees and finches and titmice can once again revel in the easy pickings.  Of course, once the blue jays move, those hogs, we will have to refill more often.  For now, however, we can watch the little dudes hop about in the cold without the bright blue bullies in the cafeteria.

I bought the sunflower seed at the hardware store.  We had the other seed left over from last year (it wasn’t and isn’t as popular, clearly).  I picked up a 25-pound bag and started walking to the counter but then realized that that was, to be kind to myself, stupid.  A 50-pound bag would save money, would last longer, and would mean one fewer trip to the hardware store.  Duh.  So I borrowed a cart and hauled it to the car.

Using the cart didn’t stop by back from aching a few days later.  Maybe it was moving the furniture.  That may have helped.  I think it was taking the foam pad off our bed.  Really, who cares?  The point is that I need to at least be careful when I haul around large bags of avian eats.  While I sit her with my sore back, I look out at the feeders, doing their job of supplying our feathered neighbors with vittles.

Here is to good health as well as to seeing all kinds of interesting antics from our dinosaur progeny in 2009.