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.

Hawk Hunt

One of the best wren shots I've managed to capture--this little guy posed about 6 feet away from me

One of the best wren shots I’ve managed to capture–this little guy posed about 6 feet away from me

On a Saturday afternoon, with only 1 day left in a “Birdathon” (a competition to find as many bird species as possible in a 3-week period), what’s a girl to do after returning home from spending 3 ½ hours wandering around a wetland looking for birds?

You guessed it–go look for more birds.  Never mind that it’s the afternoon and not exactly prime birding.  Never mind that I’d just spend all morning walking around straining my neck.  Never mind that I had a dog that needed to go for a walk.

There was still a good chance of picking up a species or two in the afternoon, I would drive to the trailhead to reduce the walking, and Tisen would just have to go birding with me to get his walk in.

The only question was where to go.  Since I hadn’t been up to Stringer’s Ridge during yet and I knew there were Cooper’s Hawks nesting up there last year and I didn’t have Cooper’s hawks on my list yet, I thought Stringer’s Ridge was a good place to go.  Besides, if anyone is likely to be up and active during the middle of the afternoon, it’s a Cooper’s hawk.

Tisen peering back at me through trailside brush

Tisen peering back at me through trailside brush

Tisen and I gathered up our respective equipment–binoculars, birding book, and camera in my case; Pink Elephant in his–and made our way to the car after a brief potty break for Tisen.

Stringer’s Ridge is close enough to walk to from our place, although it’s probably a good mile away and part of that mile is up a steep climb.  I was happy I’d decided to drive as we made our way through the neighborhood and up to the parking lot, my back was already aching from the wetland walk.

We parked in the empty lot and I enjoyed being able to let Tisen walk off-lead for a change with no one else around.  Tisen was pretty happy about getting to explore, too.  One problem with birding with Tisen is that he doesn’t really do a great job flushing birds for me.  He tends to scare them off in the opposite direction.  I found myself contemplating whether I should try to train him like a hunting dog to circle around and flush the birds towards me.  I decided it probably wasn’t worth the effort.

My sweet boy coming back to Mommy after wandering aways ahead

My sweet boy coming back to Mommy after wandering aways ahead

There weren’t many birds for him to scare away that day.  The occasional drumming of a distant woodpecker reached our ears and the ubiquitous Carolina Wren seemed to be following us along the path, but no Cooper’s Hawks were to be found.  Thankfully, as we made our way along a loop trail that gave us a nice walk through the woods that was probably less than 2 miles long, I heard a Wood Thrush singing its glorious, wistful song.  If you’ve never heard a Wood Thrush, you owe it to yourself to give it a listen.  You can play its flute-like song here:  http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Wood_Thrush/id

 

Craven Birds

A singing Eastern Towhee may not be the most unusual sight in Tennessee, but this was the best picture I got of the day

A singing Eastern Towhee may not be the most unusual sight in Tennessee, but this was the best picture I got of the day

Today was a big birding day.  I got out birding with some really expert birders.  We met at Cravens House on Lookout Mountain.  When we arrived, I was surprised to discover that the gate to the main parking lot was still locked.  I’ve never been to Cravens House when the gate was locked, but then I don’t think I’ve ever been there at 9AM on a Sunday morning, either.

Not the usual sighting on a bird walk, but seeing the include railway train pass over the trail was kind of fun

Not the usual sighting on a bird walk, but seeing the include railway train pass over the trail was kind of fun

Pat and Tisen drove up with me in case no birders showed.  Normally, we don’t take dogs birding.  It’s just not the best mix.  Even though Tisen is not a big bird chaser, a lot of birds key off the shape of a canine and go into hiding.  I know this is particularly true of water fowl like geese.  I haven’t really witnessed this with song birds, but since I’ve never known anyone to bring a dog on a bird walk, I don’t know that I would have noticed.  The birds at Renaissance Park are so used to seeing dogs, I don’t think they’re a good test case.

Our plan was to go for a hike if no one showed and for Pat and Tisen to hike a different direction if others did show.  As it turned out, Pat and Tisen took their own hike.

A large variety of Trillium whose name I don't recall

A large variety of Trillium whose name I don’t recall

One birder joined us who moved to Chattanooga fairly recently.  He and his wife and children moved here from Seattle.  He was so excited to get to go birding.  He mentioned that since moving to Chattanooga he’d been a stay-at-home-dad.  I think that explained his enthusiasm for getting out and doing something with adults.  He was fun to bird with–he had lots of great birding stories from parts of the world like Australia.

We walked for 3 hours and saw about 34 bird species.  We might have seen more had we started out on a different trail, but I didn’t know the trail we ended up on was even up there until Clyde mentioned it.  Clyde is one of Chattanooga’s best birders.  I love it when he comes to bird walks–I’ve never birded with anyone who can bird like him.  He seems to hear or see a bird with every breath.  It’s really amazing.

One of the more exciting sightings of the day--the Hooded Warbler

One of the more exciting sightings of the day–the Hooded Warbler

In any case, the Carolina Wrens and Northern Cardinals were singing so loudly that we joked we wished we had a volume control for them.  Carolina Wrens are one of those birds I never tire of.  Although they are so common it’s not particularly exciting to see them, their fussy little personalities and extraordinarily loud voices continue to amuse me.  On the occasions when I get to see them sing, I am always impressed by the effort.  Their entire body seems to throw itself into the production of sound.  It’s no wonder they produce a sound that seems at least a magnitude larger than their tiny bodies.

Another favorite that turned up--an American Redstart

Another favorite that turned up–an American Redstart

But today, no wrens were willing to pose for me.  The best I managed to capture was a singing Towhee.

Bird (and other Stuff) Walk

This dragonfly (or is it a damselfly?) appeared to be depositing eggs, but we weren't sure

This dragonfly (or is it a damselfly?) appeared to be depositing eggs, but we weren’t sure

April is primetime for birding.  The number of bird species here increases dramatically during spring migration.  For example, while only a handful of Wood Warblers nest and breed in the Tennessee area, dozens fly through Tennessee (including the Tennessee Warbler) during migration.

False garlic bloomed in the grass

False garlic bloomed in the grass

Spring migration is also easier on those of us with bad eyes.  This is for three primary reasons:

  1. They sing more, making it easier to figure out where they are and, with a bit of practice, to identify which bird it is from its song,
  2. In early spring, there are few leaves for the birds to hide behind, and
  3. The birds are in full breeding plumage, making them (especially the males) much easier to spot and recognize.
Oh how I wanted to trim the branches between me and this Brown Thrasher

Oh how I wanted to trim the branches between me and this Brown Thrasher

Therefore, it only makes sense that we would decide to have a Birdathon in the month of April.  This is a stolen idea from a friend up North who started raising money for the local Audubon chapter up there.  This friend introduced me to birding when she invited her sponsors to go on a bird walk each year as a thank you for contributing.  I guess it stuck–I think the first time I went on a bird walk with her must have been over 15 years ago now.

Trillium was just starting to bloom along the trail

Trillium was just starting to bloom along the trail

In any case, as part of the Birdathon, we are trying to raise money for the Audubon by taking pledges for the number of bird species we identify over a 3 week period.  I am not doing so well.  I don’t think I’ve even gotten up to 50 yet.

Much easier to shoot, this turtle basked in the sun

Much easier to shoot, this turtle basked in the sun

One of the rules is that if a bird is not commonly found in the area, you have to either have a second person who agrees with the ID or a photo of the bird.  This has led to me carrying my DSLR with the 100-400mm lens on it every time I go walking through the park or on an official bird walk.

Evidence that someone got only half a meal--we discovered the back half of a 5-striped skink

Evidence that someone got only half a meal–we discovered the back half of a 5-striped skink

I so want to get some great photos of song birds.  But every time I carry the camera, I end up with tiny shots of song birds up in tree tops.  I need a tree house with a blind to sit behind so I can get up closer to the birds.  Since I don’t think Park and Recreation will approve of me building a birdhouse, I guess I will have to stick to cropping the heck out of my images.

A muskrat surprised us while we looked for birds--I like how it is actually just under the surface of the water

A muskrat surprised us while we looked for birds–I like how it is actually just under the surface of the water

The photos in this post are from 2 bird walks, 2 locations.  One at the park near me and one at Audubon Acres.  I am slightly proud of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher’s photo–that sucker is a 4 ½” bird and I was not that close–the fact that it’s as sharp as it is even though I cropped it a lot is what I’m proud of.

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher busy hunting among the tree tops

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher busy hunting among the tree tops

What strikes me as funny is that I only came back from 3 hours of looking at birds with images of 2 birds–I hope bird photographers are well paid.

These turtles looked like they were in the middle of some sort of dating ritual

These turtles looked like they were in the middle of some sort of dating ritual

Bird Kings

I have a lot of funny stories about birding.  Let’s start with the 2 years I spent getting out my CD-set of bird songs every time I heard a particular bird calling, trying desperately to figure out what it was, only to discover (eventually) it was a chipmunk.

Or, how about the time I managed to convince myself that a Great Blue Heron (one of the most readily identifiable birds around) was a Tri-colored Heron because its feathers were hanging at a weird angle, making a pattern of color around its neck I hadn’t seen before.

Then there’s the time I was sure I was seeing a Louisiana Waterthrush only to realize I was looking at a female Red-winged Blackbird.  While I think all birders have been fooled by a female Red-winged Blackbird, I’d bet there aren’t too many who thought they might be a Louisiana Waterthrush.

But besides my identification mishaps, I also have physical ones.  For example, at the end of this month’s Wednesday morning bird walk (which I was leading), I got excited trying to see a bird in a tree right above us and I walked right into a concrete bench and fell over it, landing on my rear.  Fortunately, my fellow birders managed to catch me enough to keep me from falling all the way over the bench and onto the ground.

There’s also the time I was so busy looking up that I walked into a branch that smacked me right in my wide-open mouth.  I guess that’s better than a friend of mine who made the mistake of looking up with an open mouth just in time to catch a not-so-tasty snack.

Oh, and then there’s the time I drove off the road trying to identify a hawk perched on post at the side of the road.  Friends, don’t let friends bird and drive.

Perhaps it’s all of these antics that often give me the feeling that the birds are as amused watching me as I am watching them.

On our Saturday morning bird walk, which I was also leading, we discovered a family of Eastern Kingbirds.  It appeared the baby had fledged and Mom and Dad were trying to encourage it to start feeding itself (sound familiar, parents?).  But the baby wasn’t ready to give up on getting spoon (or beak) fed.

Perched low in a shrub near eye-level, we had quite a treat watching these wonderful flycatchers swoop in and encourage the baby to make an effort.  Baby, on the other hand, demanded to be fed loudly, squealing at Mom and Dad with a bright pink, open mouth.  No tasty treat for Baby either.

I love Eastern Kingbirds. They’re the easiest flycatcher to identify by sight.  The white rim along the tip of their tails and their size along with their pure white breast make them striking and distinct.  That’s what makes a bird a favorite for me–easily distinguishable features.