Birdathon Awards

The winner with the most observed birds in the elementary age group celebrated with his family

The winner with the most observed birds in the elementary age group celebrated with his family, but his sister wasn’t so excited

Our first annual Birdathon to raise money for the Chattanooga Audubon Society came to close this Saturday when we gathered together to award prizes.  Due to the fickle weather that fluctuated between sunshine and pouring rain every half hour or so, the event was moved into the visitor’s center.

This little one wasn't a birder, but she sure enjoyed modeling

This little one wasn’t a birder, but she sure enjoyed modeling

The event kicked off with hot dog roasting over the fire.  However, the use of the fireplace had to be timed carefully–the Chimney Swifts nesting in the chimney are only out so long in the evening and we wanted to make sure we didn’t asphyxiate them with smoke when they came back to roost for the night.

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We didn’t have to worry about the heat–the fire didn’t get hot enough to roast the marshmallows at the end of the evening.  This was probably for the best.

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It was a lot of fun to meet the kids who participated and discover how much they and their families had learned about birds in the process of Birdathoning.  They had a similar experience to what I think most birders have when they get started–the sudden realization that we’ve been missing an entire world of incredible creatures that surround us every day.

Kyle MC'd for the Evening

Kyle MC’d for the Evening

Birding can be addictive.  It creates a sense that someone has been pulling one over on you and you become determined not to let them get away with it anymore.  Like you’ve been part of a big cosmic joke because you haven’t noticed the Hooded Warbler singing over your head or the Scarlet Tanager feeding in the tree tops.

Most Bird Species Identified Award (prize of a bird feeder not shown)

Most Bird Species Identified Award (prize of a bird feeder not shown)

It’s a great analogy for how many of us live our lives–so busy and so worried all the time–thinking, thinking, thinking–that we don’t notice where we are or what’s around us.  For me, listening for birds, watching for birds, spending time looking at them carefully and listening to their songs to really see them, really know them is not just a process of identifying a bird; it’s an experience of seeing and hearing with intention and purpose.  Of seeing with intensity more of the world that is and less of the world in my head.  And being rewarded with wonder and awe in return for paying attention.

The top fund raiser award (who also got a bird feeder)

The top fund raiser award (who also got a bird feeder)

All in all, it was a satisfying first go.  We raised a fair amount of money for a small band of 23 people.  We got 19 children interested in birding and their moms got excited about it, too.  We had a lot of fun in the process and some of us added many birds to their life-lists (myself included).  I got to bird with several talented birders who taught me new things, and I even got a couple of decent shots of birds in the process.

Certificates were also given to "judge" participants who weren't eligible for prizes--Linda identified 123 birds during the event

Certificates were also given to “judge” participants who weren’t eligible for prizes–Linda identified 123 birds during the event

If that wasn’t satisfaction enough, I was given a really nice gift by my fellow organizers for importing the event from Columbus and helping to plan it.  They even gave me flowers.  I felt a little guilty, but it was nice to be appreciated.

 

Mind the Gap

A Red-winged Blackbird takes a stroll in the grass

A Red-winged Blackbird takes a stroll in the grass

I would now like to take a moment to interrupt your regularly scheduled program.  I discovered a set of photos from my last solo bird walk of the Birdathon over a week ago.  I suppose I was getting tired of posting bad pictures of birds and writing about bird walks, so maybe it was a Freudian slip?

A roosting coot

A roosting coot

In any case, on the last day of the Birdathon, I decided to take a drive over to Standifer Gap Marsh for the second time.  It was a long shot given it was going to be about 1PM in the afternoon when I arrived (the worst time for birding) and it was hot and sunny out.  But, needing 10 more species to get to my goal of 100, and knowing that the marsh is well known for Least Bitterns and Virginia Rails, I thought is was worth taking the chance.

Turtles trying to escape over the fence

Turtles trying to escape over the fence

Tisen and I arrived to discover a completely empty parking lot.  We got out of the car and spotted our first bird–a Red-winged Blackbird.  This was not very exciting since we see Red-winged Blackbirds every time we walk the park outside our building, but I did take a few shots of it.  I managed to get one of it walking, which was kind of fun.

My friend, the Yellow-rumped Warbler

I really thought this was another Yellow-rumped Warbler in the field, but in looking at the photo, I think this must be a Magnolia Warbler

We walked slowing along the road that goes between two parts of the marsh, looking on either side to see if we could spot anything really exciting.  The bad part about going birding some where new and hoping to see something even newer is that the odds of me feeling confident that I’ve correctly identified whatever it was are pretty slim, meaning I pretty much needed to get a good enough photo to identify it later and get confirmation from someone else.  That’s a lot of pressure when you’re birding in the middle of the afternoon and walking a dog at the same time.  Of course, that would have been a good problem to have.

Yellow-rumped finding a snack to fuel up for a long flight

Yellow-rumped finding a snack to fuel up for a long flight

As it was, I spotted a coot hanging out in broad daylight taking a nap on top of a broken off snag in the marsh, endless numbers of turtles, and a gaggle of Canada geese in the nearby soccer field before deciding we’d had enough sunshine and heading back into the wooded part of the park.

One more shot of my hungry friend

One more shot of my hungry friend

The woods were quite nice.  Tisen got to walk off lead, exploring ahead and behind me while I cranked back my neck and looked for Warblers.  I heard several different warblers, but am a bit rusty on my warbler songs, so I didn’t feel certain I could correctly identify them by song.  The one I saw and then saw again and then saw some more until I was rather tired of seeing it was the Yellow-rumped Warbler.  It makes me laugh how quickly we go from being amazed to annoyed when someone becomes overly familiar.

More content turtles hanging out in the marsh

More content turtles hanging out in the marsh

In the end, I found no new birds, but Tisen and I enjoyed our walk.

VW Plant

This is not a broken, black ping pong ball but rather a common fungus

This is not a broken, black ping pong ball but rather a common fungus

There comes a time in every bird walk when someone much more knowledgable about plants than I am suddenly stops and points out a plant.  Often, the plant is a fungus.  Is a fungus actually a plant?  According to http://herbarium.usu.edu, it is not.  Rather, fungi have their very own kingdom–and what a special kingdom it is.

Photographically, I am always challenged when we encounter cool fungi or plants along the trail while birding.  This is because I only take one lens with me birding.  It’s my 100-400mm and it doesn’t really perform well for macro photography.  This doesn’t stop me, of course, from trying my best to get a shot of the life forms we encounter.  Realistically, I am not going to tote my tripod and macro lens on birding walks to capture these plants better up close, so I will just have to live with the motion blur and shallow depth of field I end up with when shooting with the 100-400mm.  It’s still better than what I get with an iPhone.

The first really interesting fungus we encountered looked like a block ping pong ball that hand been broken open.  In fact, it looked so manmade to me that I would have assumed it was litter had we not had one of our plant experts on the walk.  It amazes me when I see things like this in nature that we ever think we invented anything on our own.

"My what big ears you have!"

“My what big ears you have!”

The second interesting fungus was a group of wood ears growing along a fallen log.  They really do look like slightly slimy ears growing on wood.  I believe this may be the birthplace of the idea for Mr. Potato head.  Perhaps the wood ears were growing on a potato and someone thought, “Hey!  That looks like a face with ears!” and then the idea grew from there.  You never know.

What kind of buckeye is that?

What kind of buckeye is that?

The next interesting non-bird we saw was, in fact, a member of the plant kingdom.  It was of particular interest to me because my Tennessean friends called it a Buckeye tree.  As a person from the buckeye state, I can tell you that I have never seen a flower on any buckeye tree that looks anything like this one.  I have read on more than one occasion that the buckeye tree is indigenous to Ohio and not found anywhere else.  I had doubted the truth of that, but now am wondering if perhaps what people call a buckeye down in Tennessee is not really the same tree at all.  Whatever it is, it’s quite beautiful.

An immature red-tailed hawk sends us on our way

An immature red-tailed hawk sends us on our way

We made our way out of the wetland a bit tired after such an early morning start.  We found many birds in the 3 hours we spent wandering about.  As we stood listening to a Cerulean Warbler just before calling it a day, we were surprised by the appearance of a Red-tailed Hawk, soaring happily overhead.  I managed to get this image of the immature hawk flying over head.

Bad Birds

The plentiful song birds migrating through Chattanooga right now have not only evaded my lens, but also my vision.  I haven’t even been able to figure out what they are.  Usually when I can’t see a bird well and I run into it for several days in a row, after I obsess about trying to identify it for a while, it will perch in front of me and I will discover it’s something as exciting as a house sparrow.

Because I find the difficulty of shooting such small birds amusing, I’ve decided to share some photos today that I would mostly not choose to share under ordinary circumstances.  As any wannabe photographer will tell you, most actual photographers advise never to put your crap photos on the web; only show you’re best.  But what’s more amusing than headless birds cut partly out of the frame completely out of focus and under exposed?

I guess what’s funny to me about them is not the actual image I ended up with so much as the story behind it.  If you can visualize me crouching patiently with my camera, firing as rapidly as I can while I try to keep a tiny songbird in my frame and walk towards it in the hope of ending up with something bigger than a tiny dark spot that is indistinguishable from a leaf.  Inevitably, this ends in the bird flying away and me tripping over something.

Or, there’s the blurry shot of Cayse coming right at me in a flare.  I’m sitting there trying to refocus on her as she perfectly spreads her wings and even fits in my frame.  But, no.  She’s closer than my lens’ minimum focusing distance.  Or, the fact that her solid black feathers present no contrast for my camera’s focusing system to work with prevents reaching focus before she’s flying over my head.

I would love to have a video of me trying to follow a hummingbird with my lens and get a shot of it in flight.  I’m amazed I got even the shot in the gallery, but I must have looked insane bobbing and weaving with my camera trying to follow the flight pattern of the hummer.

Whenever I am in Florida, I am relieved by the large, cooperative birds who will gladly stand around and pose for hours at a time.  Northern waterbirds are far less cooperative.  This is apparently true in Europe too–we were at the Bodensee on the southern border of Germany when I attempted to shot a group of swans.  Much like a fly that will shoot out from under your hand when you try to slap it, these swans would tip upside down as soon as I pushed the shutter button.

I suppose much like the rare bird seems more beautiful than the common one, the rare decent shot seems more beautiful because it’s rare.  In the meantime, I keep watching eBay for a great deal on a used 600mm lens.

Feeder Watch

Apparently there were more exciting things going on in Chattanooga last Saturday than sitting around watching bird feeders because I was the only one at the visitor’s center diligently watching the feeders.  However, this gave me the opportunity to get some shots of the birds that I wouldn’t have been able to get had a crowd of people showed up, so it worked out just as well.

The House Finches were the most plentiful by far.  There seemed to be a couple of males who had collected large harems.  Or, perhaps they were couples who had many almost-adult daughters but no sons?

The cardinals and titmice were close seconds in number.  One of the feeders at the visitor’s center has a mechanism that closes off access to the seed if something heavy lands sits on the perch.  This keeps squirrels off of the feeder.  However, it also means only one bird can perch and feed at a time.  This creates a great study of bird learning.

Some arrive, see another bird on the feeder eating and attempt to join it.  If the bird eating is an experienced and assertive bird, it will flap and squawk at the newcomer, attempting to deter it from landing.  If successful, the newcomer will go perch nearby and wait until the first bird leaves or it gets impatient.

If it gets impatient, it may land on the perch far enough away from the second bird so that it leaves it alone.  However, the extra weight causes the perch to lower and the doors to the seed close.  Then both birds fly away and, usually, a third bird swoops in to take advantage of the opening before the other two birds can regroup.

Some birds simply give up and join the squirrels on the ground hoping for someone to knock out a bunch of seed while eating.  They are joined by the birds that prefer to eat off the ground regardless.

For me, I got a rare close look at both a male and female Eastern Towhee.  I say rare because I rarely saw them in Columbus and so far, in Chattanooga, they have mostly been perched high in the tree tops when I’ve seen them.  Apparently all I needed was a feeder.  Chipping Sparrows seemed to keep them company.

Even though the brown-headed nuthatch is a common bird here, having never seen one before, I was pretty stoked to get to see three of them gathering at the feeder.  They don’t make it up North, so I’ve only seen white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches in the past.

Not at the feeders, but nearby, a Carolina Wren called from the gate.  Then, a Brown Thrasher showed up under a feeder-less tree.  If that wasn’t enough, a wild tom turkey went strutting by the parking lot fence and crossed the railroad tracks in plain view.  We’d seen a whole family the last time I was there, but Tom was fun to watch, too.

Not a bad birding day.

Birding 101

Birds reveal themselves to me slowly.  I must see them many times before I understand who they are, what they look like, what interests them, what they sound like, and I can recognize them like an old friend.

When I hear a bubbling American Goldfinch flying by behind me, I smile to myself, envisioning it’s scooping flight pattern, called “zooming” in hang gliding school.  How the goldfinch must love the zip of the dive followed by the lift, stalling and diving again and again, riding its invisible roller coaster and able to stay airborne because, unlike a hang glider, it can flap.

When I see a Great Blue Heron gliding in for a landing at the wetland, I know that the theory that dinosaurs did not all become extinct but some evolved into birds is true.  If ever there was a remnant of a pterodactyl, surely it’s the great blue heron with its crooked neck gliding awkwardly on giant wings, miraculously able to perch high in a tree on it’s fragile, stilted legs.

And now, I am pursued by brilliant Indigo Buntings.  They perch and sing their songs to me, over and over, determined that I will recognize the sound of their voice.  At long last I have learned to know them by their song.  I can smile and look and see a tiny silhouette off in a distant tree top, point, and say, “There is an Indigo Bunting.”  It seems like magic to those who have not listened to the bunting’s song 3x a day for months.  It seems like magic to me, even though I have.

No matter how familiar a few birds have become to me, there is always another bird to meet.  My latest friends are fly catchers.  The Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher is easy to recognize.  But the Eastern Phoebe and the Eastern Wood Pewee still manage to confuse me even though I thought I knew what a Phoebe looked like for many years now.  My human friends play the same trick on me–I often recognize them only to discover I’m saying hello to a complete stranger.  At least the Phoebe tells me its name over and over again in its distinct call of “Fee – bee.”

These are things I like to share with others.  I love to see people get excited about seeing a bird for the first time that they’ve walked by without notice for decades.  I love to see someone realize that a bird they thought they knew looks completely different up close through binoculars.

For this reason, I have started leading beginning bird walks for the Audubon Society.  I am not the best birder in the world–there are many species I would be hard pressed to even guess at.  But, having struggled long and hard to learn what I do know, I know what’s helped me learn it.  Maybe that’s why people say “those who can’t do, teach”?

Regardless, I’m happy to share smiles, even if it’s over a robin.

Going to the Birds

After spending the morning hang gliding, we change into dry clothes and head off to spend our afternoon with some of the best pilots ever born. They are a group of slightly crazy and/or disabled raptors. Raptors as in the family of birds that includes hawks, owls, eagles, and vultures–in other words, birds of prey.

I have been looking forward to this for weeks. We originally saw a poster for a Raptor Experience at the hang gliding office a month ago. The Raptor Experience is offered by a non-profit organization called SOAR (Save Our American Raptors). They care for non-releasable raptors and train them so they can be used for educational programs to teach people about birds of prey. They also have a Peregrine Falcon release project and are tracking a falcon who is currently vacationing in South America.

As a bird lover and one who is particularly fascinated by birds of prey, I am excited about this beyond belief. I’m hoping we will get to actually handle the birds, but in my excitement, I can’t remember if the person I talked to said we do or not. Even more exciting, I’ve been wanting to volunteer for a raptor rescue program for years, and now this looks like it might be an opportunity.

We arrive at the designated meeting spot a little early. My nerves kick in about meeting people a bit, but since we just talked with Dale, the wife of the husband and wife team who run the organization, I’m not too nervous. John, the other half of the team, arrives only a couple minutes after we do. He’s driving a jeep with a hang glider on the roof, so it’s not too hard to guess it’s him. Dale told me on the phone that she and John are both hang gliding pilots and I enjoyed watching a video of John taking a one-winged bald eagle hang gliding on their web site.

John offers to drive us up to their property where the birds live, explaining that the road is pretty rough. Pat, being a man, decides that he can drive the mini-van up it and save John the trip back down later. As we make our way down the dirt road with large holes, ridges, dips, and rocks, the car drags enough time to make me wish we’d just ridden with John. We make it without losing any parts of the van, although Pat comments that it’s a good thing that I’d already knocked off the front lip spoiler (whatever that is) dragging the front bumper over a parking block.

When we arrive, Dale comes out to greets us, although one of their rescued dogs beats her to the punch, and invites us into the house where she offers us freshly baked, homemade cookies and gives us a run down of what we’re going to experience and why these birds are here. We learn that, yes, we will get to handle the birds. (Yay!) We also learn that none of the birds here at SOAR are able to return to the wild either because of injuries or mental problems. Interestingly, “mental problems” are defined mostly as birds who were raised by humans and, because they imprinted on the humans, don’t know how to do what they were born to do.

After the orientation, we head outside and are equipped with leather gloves. We are going to start with Eastern Screech Owls. Small, docile, and probably sleepy, they sit quietly on our gloves and even enjoy being petted on the back of the head. John tells us that owls understand touch as affection, but other birds we will handle do not and warns us not to attempt to pet the hawks.

I am so amazed by these tiny little owls. They weigh nothing. John points out that we can see the ruffled edges of their feathers, the secret to the silent flight of owls. And, even more amazing, John shows us their ears. They actually have little human-like ears under those feathers! The ears are offset, apparently to help locate where sounds are coming from in the dark.

I could have been happy just sitting there with these little owls all day, but Dale puts them away so John can bring us a Barred Owl–since Barred Owls will eat Screech Owls, everyone is happier when they’re not together.

We used to live in a wooded ravine where Barred Owls also lived. They are enormous. Or, at least they look enormous. In contrast to their size, hollow bones and feathers make birds weigh far less than other types of animals of the same volume. I’ve read this before, but having never held a bird, the reality of the gap between how much this bird looks like it should weigh and how much it actually weighs surprises me when Dale puts this great big owl on my glove. This owl weighs less than 2 pounds.

Next, John returns with a Barn Owl. We don’t get to hold this owl who is about halfway between the size of the Screech and Barred Owls. At least not right way. He doesn’t like to sit on the glove–he wants to fly. And that is exactly what he gets to do.

John stands at one spot behind the house and we go to the other. Dale accompanies us with a pouch full of small mouse parts. I ask her who gets to chop mice–she makes a face when she admits it’s her. Clearly, it’s not her favorite part of the job.

I hold out my gloved arm and Dale places a small piece of mouse on my fist. John releases the owl and he flies to me, swooping low to the ground and then flaring upward so that he lands feet forward on the glove. Having just come from hang gliding, we are fascinated watching how the owl instinctively uses ground effect (the rising air close to the ground) to get lift in time to flare, which is what Pat is now learning to do, so he can land on his feet.

It’s an amazing experience to stand there waiting for a bird of prey land on your fist. As he glides towards me, the owl’s tiny body is dwarfed by his enormous wingspan. The sunlight shines through the feathers on his wings, making him look as angelic as a bird of prey can. I wonder if he minds performing in the early afternoon when he should be sleeping. He looks pretty darn happy when he picks up a mouse chunk and swallows it down.

Next, we get to fly Cody, a Red-tail Hawk who refuses to hunt. Cody glides even closer to the ground, skimming just inches above the surface, and then swoops up in a sharp arc just before reaching me. I notice he flares with his feathers as well as his wings. Every feather spreads, his tail dramatically opening like a fan. Just as with the owl, this flare brings him nearly to a halt so that when he lands on my arm, there is no impact. It’s like he parachuted down gently.

After flying Cody, we get to meet Franklin, an American Kestrel, and a Harris’s Hawk whose name escapes me. I’ve never seen a Harris’s Hawk before. He is beautiful–rich browns blend into black, which contrasts with the white in his tail.

Next, we get to meet Casey, the Black Vulture. Casey seems to think she is a dog. She circles around Dale, who tickles Casey on the back and Casey responds with what appears to be a happy Vulture sound, but comes out a lot like a hiss. Casey gallops along on the ground, preferring to walk even though she is perfectly capable of flying. Dale tells us that she sometimes walks Casey in the woods–she really does think she’s a dog!

We attempt to fly Casey, but Casey is in the mood to run instead. She flies up to our gloves to collect treats, but then hops back to the ground to run the distance between us instead of flying. Cameraless today, I switch my iPhone into video mode and try to capture her running on video–there is just something too funny about watching a vulture run.

I appreciate the work that vultures do, having once had a pond where hundreds of fish died all at once, it was an amazing thing to have a few dozen vultures show up and clean up the mess in about 3 days. However, I never thought the words “cute” and “vulture” went together. Today, I change my mind. Casey is adorable. Dale tells us that Casey is used to being the star of the show; I am not surprised.

We finish off our Raptor Experience with a Bald Eagle. I can’t recall this eagle’s name, but it is a Navajo word that means, “The Littlest Eagle.” It’s a good name. This poor guy lost a wing due to a shooting. I’m not sure if the missing wing contributes to how small he looks, but he definitely is small for an eagle. I am sad to learn this eagle has not been hang gliding yet because it means that there are two one-winged eagles living out their lives in captivity.

It’s an appropriate finale to the day, though. After all, it’s hard to beat a Bald Eagle for majesty. We go inside to wash our hands and talk for a while before wrapping up and heading home. Dale talks us into one of her cookies before we go–a peanut butter blossom with a soft hershey’s kiss in the middle, yum! We get in the car and I feel like I should pinch myself–it’s hard for me to believe that I just spent the afternoon playing with raptors. Instead, as Pat creeps back over the bumpy dirt road, I look at the pictures Dale took for us on my iPhone and smile.