Renaissance Rodents

Across the street, Renaissance Park beckons.  It calls to me with its manmade hills hiding secrets left behind by the manufacturers who occupied this park long ago.  And before that, the civil war soldiers who crossed the Tennessee here at Ross’ Landing.  And even before that, the Cherokee on their tragic walk on the Trail of Tears.

I don’t know what all was encapsulated in the mounds of Renaissance Park, but Renaissance is a good name for it.  Reborn from the pit of industrial waste it had become, it’s now a haven for birds, butterflies, the occasional deer, perhaps a fox family, and for sure coyote.

The thing is, you don’t get predators if you don’t have prey.  Fortunately, prey doesn’t care if the hills are manmade or if the wetland was created by a backhoe, or that the plants were carefully inserted into the earth by the hands of a human being.

The fact that the western hill in Renaissance is covered in native grasses and flowers means it’s a living feeder.  It feeds the American Goldfinches who love to cling to the stems of flowers that have gone to seed while they munch away.  And, underneath the foliage, it also feeds a more mysterious colony of life.

This colony becomes massive in the fall when the young have matured enough to rustle amongst the long grass on their own.  They scamper and disappear quickly enough that all I’d been able to determine is that they were rodents.  I’ve been afraid to consider the possibility that they’re rats.  Not because I’m afraid of rats but because I fear the reaction of the public to the notion of a large population of rats nesting in the park.

To me, this just makes the hillside a better feeder–it provides food for more than one link in the food chain.  But, for many, the word “rat” causes a different reaction.

When Tisen and I walked into the park a few evenings ago, these mystery creatures were showing themselves.  In fact, one sat on top of a clump of grass staring at me.  I was so caught off guard, having tried to see what they looked like for so long without success, that I barely had time to process what it looked like before it took a closer look at Tisen and decided to duck back under cover.  It looked a lot like a small brown rat.  I decided I’d better bring my camera over the next evening.

Back we went, me armed with my 70-200mm lens.  As Tisen’s tags jingled, the little critters scampered around, not holding still long enough for me to get a look, let alone a shot.  But, finally, I spotted one sitting still.  I am happy and relieved to report that it is not a rat; it’s a Meadow Vole (I think).  After all, no one ever got up in arms about exterminating a bunch of cute little voles, did they?  My favorite hawk feeder is safe.


Feeder Birds

Watching the Audubon Visitors’ Center is not exactly an arduous task.  In fact, the only reason it’s nice to have at least 2 people there is so that one of them can go do something else from time to time.  While visits are picking up as more and more activities are scheduled, it really isn’t like there is ever a line of people trying to check in.

As such, when I was asked to be the backup volunteer last Saturday, I took my camera along and thought I might get an opportunity to do a little shooting while I was there.

Not wanting to assume anything, I decided to come back for my camera after establishing how much help the main volunteer was likely to need.

I hopped out of the mini-van and immediately heard the plaintive cry of a red-shouldered hawk.  She was flying straight at me over the roof of the visitor’s center.  I stood there admiring her and simultaneously kicking myself for not having my camera at the ready.  She flew overhead and perched on some wires briefly.  When I started to move back towards my car, she flew off.

Now, I might have gotten a clue and grabbed my camera right then and there, but I figured that was going to be my one big sighting for the day and continued on my way into the center. And of course, I got to chatting with the other volunteer and one of the board members who stopped in and didn’t get back out to get my camera right away.

And, of course squared, as we were chatting, a family of wild turkeys suddenly appeared in the parking lot.  There were 7 chicks with two adults working there way across the parking lot.

I have a history with wild turkeys and my camera.  Whenever I see a wild turkey, I think “wild goose” and I don’t even try to chase it.  It’s just fortunate I’m shooting digital.  Otherwise, I would really resent all those shots of bushes where a turkey had been a moment before.

I did, however, learn my lesson and go get my camera.  I didn’t, however, see any more birds that were exciting.  I did, however, manage to get some shots of the birds at the feeders.  I particularly like the female house finch drinking the water that collected in the indentation in the hummingbird feeder.  Who says you have to go all out to create a water feature attractive to birds?

I also really like the hummingbird and the bee racing to the feeder.  I wish it were a better shot (not enough depth of field), but I was at least pleasantly surprised that I managed to get them both in the frame at the same time.

The titmouse peeping at me also makes me smile.  I can’t say I’ve ever seen a titmouse from quite that angle. It took me a while to remember what kind of bird it was.


Shooting Hawks and Clouds

I am sitting at my desk on a conference call.  I have been working on a spreadsheet for hours and, as I listen to the call and tweak numbers, I suddenly start seeing double.  I take off my glasses, rub my eyes, and then look out the window at the sweeping view of downtown.  Something between me and the city moves across my line of vision.  I look and recognize one of the hawks I’ve been seeing in the park across the street for the last few days.

There are two mounds in the park.  According to the sign, the mounds were created as part of the process to contain hazardous waste.  Not exactly comforting, but they look nice.  The mound on the right has low-growing plants all along the sides that flop over and create lots of little dark hiding places for rodents that scurry through the plants whenever someone walks by.  Pat and I have been trying to get a good look at exactly what lives on that mound for a long time.  We know it’s grayish brown and larger than a mouse or mole.  We decided they were voles after getting a quick glance at one, but part of me secretly fears they might be rats.

Whatever it is that lives on that mound, a pair of hawks discovered the colony the other day and seems to be returning regularly for an afternoon picnic.  I’m relieved to see the hawks.  Not just because they will help control the rodent population, but because I miss seeing birds from my window.  Other than the house sparrows and starlings who seem to have an ongoing war over who will roost in the crevices above our windows, most the birds hang out in the park and are too small to see from my desk.  However, I’m confused by this hawk.  It looks to be on the small side, but it has very bright reddish coloring around it’s head, chest, and shoulders.  I would normally assume it was a Red-shouldered Hawk, but it looks awfully small.  It’s also more vividly colored both in the red areas and in the strong contrast in the spots on its back.

When I see the same pair again that evening, I spend some time looking up Red-shouldered Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks trying to determine for sure what it is.  Now, most people who have any interest in birds do not have trouble telling a Red-shouldered from a Cooper’s.  I, however, am wired to perceive connections and similarities.  This is probably due to some genetic misfortune in my brain that causes me to see commonalities that may or may not exist, but others rarely see.

This same feature of my perceptions causes me to mistake people I’ve never seen before in my life for people I know quite well.  I had to start applying a rule of probability in deciding whether to enthusiastically greet someone or not in order to avoid frightening complete strangers.  The rule of probability takes into account the likelihood that the person I think I’m seeing would actually be where I am.  I will say, though,  that I did run into a co-worker once when both of us unknowingly took vacations in Scotland and then happened to end up waiting on our completely unrelated groups outside of Edinburgh Castle at the same time.  What are the odds?

Fortunately, I did not fail to greet my co-worker in that case because I heard his voice and knew definitively it was him.  Similarly, with the hawks, if I could hear them calling, I would know for sure which species I have the pleasure of watching.  If they are calling, the traffic noise drowns it out and there is no hope that I will ever be able to use their voice for identification.

But, back to comparing Red-shouldered hawks and Cooper’s, in my defense, a young, molting Cooper’s Hawk can look like a Red-shouldered Hawk if they turn a certain way, stand in direct but muted lighting, and the viewer has a vivid imagination.  Plus, the size of these birds seems more like a Cooper’s to me than a Red-shouldered.

However, after looking at pictures of both in various settings, I have to go with Red-shouldered.  I continue to be puzzled by their size.  I manage to get a few shots, although I struggle with focusing with my long lens pointed out the window.  It’s a pretty good distance to the bird, so I’m not surprised that my shots are disappointing.  I leave the camera set up just in case I have another opportunity the next day.

In the morning, I start watching for the hawk as soon as the sun is bright enough.  When I get too busy to look, that’s when movement catches my attention out of the corner of my eye.  I look out and there is one of the hawks, hunting on the hill.  She has something in her talons that she carries to a light post to snack on.  I cringe when I see it’s a rodent with a long tail.  I really didn’t want to see any evidence that those voles really might be rats.  I say a quick thank you for the presence of the hawks and hope for some owls, too, while I’m at it.

When I go for a walk, I see the hawk in the park again, only this time I am looking up at it.  I realize it’s size is correct for a Red-shouldered hawk after all.  I’ve been looking down at it from a distance.  Now that I am standing on the ground looking up, I remember the old trick in photography that says if you want your subject to look bigger, get down and point up at it.  If you want your subject to look smaller, stand above it and shoot down at it.  Apparently it is this phenomena that has been at work on my perception.

Now that this is settled, I can move on with my life.  Next step:  learn how to shoot the suckers so that they are in focus and doing something interesting.  For now, the sky is cooperating more than the hawks, so I switch from shooting wildlife to shooting clouds.