Winter Bird Walk

A male cardinal looks remarkable brilliant--he seems to be ready for spring

A male cardinal looks remarkable brilliant–he seems to be ready for spring

I managed to crawl out of bed early enough to lead a bird walk at 9AM this morning.  It was cold.  Yesterday, it wasn’t.  Yesterday, when I slept in until 8AM and stayed indoors all day, it was warm.  Today, there were snow flurries blowing around by mid-afternoon.

Fortunately, it was clear and sunny for the bird walk this morning.

A small group of us met for a mid-winter bird walk.  I kicked us off with a quick look and listen at a few birds I expected us to see who aren’t around for the spring and summer bird walks.

One of them is among my favorite birds.  It’s the White-Throated Sparrow.  This is a bird who is actually quite common in the winter months, but one that I personally failed to notice until I was in my 30’s.  Many of us go through life believing there is only one kind of “sparrow” and not knowing that the sparrow we most frequently see is an invasive import from Europe.  In reality, there are many native species of sparrows in the US.  The white-throated and the white-crowned are my two favorites.  There is a simple reason for this.  They have bold black and white stripes on their heads, making them easy to identify compared to many of the other sparrows.

A white-throated sparrow picks through a pile of leaves

A white-throated sparrow picks through a pile of leaves

The White-throated sparrow also has a distinct and beautiful song that makes them an easy bird to learn by sound as well as sight.  I won’t attempt to describe it, but it’s very high-pitched and clearly whistled.  Canadians claim it’s singing “O Canada,” but I can’t say that’s what I hear.

A second bird I planned for us to see was the yellow-rumped warbler.  These winter visitors are always a cheering sight with their bright-yellow rumps in the middle of winter.  Unfortunately, the only one anyone saw today flew off before the rest of us got to see it.

We had a nice surprise when we spotted a swamp sparrow while watching some white-throated sparrows.  It took us a while to realize what we were seeing.  After all, it doesn’t have bright white stripes on its head to neatly narrow down the possibilities.

In lieu of a shot of the swamp sparrow, here is another shot of the white-throated sparrow

In lieu of a shot of the swamp sparrow, here is another shot of the white-throated sparrow

Meanwhile, the Song Sparrows flew in and out, singing all the while in the background.  I hate to ignore the song sparrow–they are such great singers and they manage to keep it up year round.  But, it’s hard not to see a song sparrow in the park, they are so prevalent.

My one regret on the bird walk is that I didn’t look closely enough at the lens on my camera when I grabbed it.  I thought I had the 100-400mm lens on my camera when, in fact, I had the 70-200mm lens on it instead.  This resulted in a lot of “where’s waldo” shots like this one:

 

Can you spot the bird?

Can you spot the bird?

The earlier images are heavily cropped to make it a little easier to spot the bird.

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Waiting for a Bird Like You

Tisen and I take a loop around Renaissance park looking for something interesting to shoot.  Well, to be fair, Tisen is more about looking for vertical objects to mark while I am looking for something to shoot.

Today, I’m out for birds.  I cock my head to one side as we walk, listening to the songs and identifying the ones I recognize as I decide whether they’re worth trying to wait for them to appear.

The thing is, song birds are really tough to get a decent shot of.  Especially when the longest I can go with autofocus is 400mm.  Since I don’t see well enough to focus manually unless the subject is sitting still, I figure I need the autofocus.

This means that unless a song bird flies down and perches on a branch about 10 feet away, I’m not going to get a very usable image.

So, I forego waiting to see if I can find the song sparrows, the carolina wrens, or even the yellow-rumped warbler I hear singing.  However, when we cross the bridge over the wetland. I notice a white-throated sparrow down in the creek below.  White-throated sparrows are winter birds in this part of the country, but they seem to be hanging out late here in Chattanooga–I still hear them every morning.

This white-throated sparrow isn’t singing, though.  He’s taking a bath.  I’m amazed as he completely submerges himself in the creek.  Then he fluffs out his feathers like he’s sitting in some kind of pool float.

Next, on the hillside above the wetland, a killdeer wanders back and forth above us.  Having staked out the blue bird house a few yards behind the killdeer, I ignore it, waiting for the blue bird to return.  The killdeer charges me like we’re playing chicken.

I manage to get a few shots of the killdeer without missing the return of the blue bird.  And when the blue bird flies off to the other side of the wetland, it lands in a tree right next to a red-winged black bird.  They are so close together, it’s hard to believe they manage to ignore one another, but they do.

As I sit focusing on the song birds, a large, mostly white bird flies through my peripheral vision.  I pull away from the camera just in time to see it fly out of sight.  It’s shaped something like a mourning dove, but it’s too big.  I find myself wondering if it’s a bird of prey, but it’s probably a giant pigeon.  When I go back to shooting the song birds, it flies by again and I miss getting a good look for a second time.

Tisen is getting impatient.  It has been an hour and a half since we started shooting, so I supposed I can’t blame him.  I skip waiting for the return of the mysterious bird, pack up, and head on home.

Mine Sweeping

We attempt to go for a walk this morning.  But it’s getting late by the time we leave so we are forced to do the short loop through the park.  We realize that someone new must have moved into the neighborhood because of the dog poop on the sidewalk.  There are three separate piles along the way.  Each one looks older than the last, like the piles are from three separate days.  I wonder if the new dog owner is French–they’re not allowed to pick up dog poop because it’s someone’s job.

Stopping short of doing forensics on the dog poop piles, we walk around cautiously, avoiding getting any on our shoes successfully.  Then, we are greeted by three women, each with a small dog.  We’ve met these women and their dogs before–these women pick up after their dogs.  The little dogs have fun racing around together, but they don’t stop for a pet.  Although one is willing to let you throw its ball.  Today, we let them go on by without attempting to pet them.

Convinced that there is no dog poop to step around in sight, my eyes go to the sky.  I am hoping to see the Red-Shouldered Hawks who hunt in the park, but instead, I spot a flock of much smaller birds hanging out in the tree tops where they are back lit and there is no hope of getting a good look at them.  From their size and shape, I would guess they were a group of Cedar Waxwings, but who knows.  The call of the White-Throated Sparrow catches my attention.  I point it out to Pat, but he doesn’t know what I’m talking about, having failed to notice a bird was singing.  I realize he is probably thinking about our dogs, long gone, and missing them.

I try to imagine having a dog again.  I feel certain that some day, a dog will walk into our lives and stick.  But, for now, we are dogless and content to remain so for a while.  In the meantime, we console ourselves by petting other people’s dogs.

We return home and I work.  Our walk seems to have been symbolic of what I will face during my work day–I seem to spend most of my day trying to avoid land mines.

At the end of the day, it’s getting late and we have nothing to eat in the house.  It’s been raining since mid-morning, but it’s not that cold.  We decide to walk over to the Japanese restaurant by Coolidge park.  I pull on a rain jacket with a hood and find an umbrella.  We make our way carefully, leaping over deep puddles that have formed, dodging the splash from cars, and peeking from under our hoods before crossing the street.  I can’t help but feel my entire day has been about avoiding traps and obstacles.

When we get to the Japanese place, we discover it’s not open on Mondays.

We head for the Italian place at the end of the street.  It’s the restaurant furthest from our place on this strip, which means another block of dodging puddles.  But, we are happy to learn that tonight there is a special.  Fat Tire for $2.50 a pint and 20% off all pizzas.  We decide to give their pizza a try.  At the end of our meal, we discover that we’ve just eaten the cheapest meal we’ve ever had in Chattanooga.  Since the Japanese place tends to be the most expensive, we’re happy that they were closed today.

Now that we are warm and full, it’s time to go back out into the rain.  I pull on my raincoat and steel myself mentally.  We rush through the darkness, holding the umbrella so that it partially covers both of us. When Pat tips the umbrella, the water runs off onto my shoulder and into my purse.  I straighten the umbrella in his hands several times before I finally take over holding it.

We run across the streets, black silhouettes against headlights.  I realize we should have worn something with reflective strips on it.  Instead of avoiding mines, now we are dodging bullets.  When we make it back to our building, a man with a backpack is sitting on the steps up to the entry.  The steps are sheltered.  We assume he is homeless and trying to get out of the rain.  We greet him and continue on by, entering the security code to get into the building and making sure no one follows us in.

We walk into our place dripping with rain.  I strip off my rain jacket and find a spot to set the umbrella so it can dry.  After shaking away the wet, I get myself ready for bed.  I feel as if I survived some sort of test today.  Walking in the rain, especially after dark, always feels like an adventure.  I wish the end of my work day gave me the same rush that walking in the rain does.