Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Messenger

I've just come from seeing The Messenger, at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan sponsored by the Washtenaw Audubon Society and the the Michigan Audubon Society.  I'm not going to lie.  It was a cruel and disheartening film.  But also a completely honest and eye-opening film looking nakedly at the peril all bird populations in the world face.  The Messenger focuses on songbirds - everybody's favorite this time of year.  

There were scenes of enchantment and beauty, scenes to describe ingenuity in bird research and scenes to reveal cleverness in bird conservation that all hint at some hope we will be able to save our world's songbirds.

I liked the film - a lot - and recommend it.  I plucked the 3:00 minute film trailer from You Tube for viewing.  But I was aware that I was watching the film in a theater full of individuals who all belong to the church.  During one of the quiet moments I would have been able to hear a pin drop, so rapt was the audience attention.

The Messenger needs to be seen by school children, school teachers, farmers, loggers, politicians, truck drivers, car manufacturers, people who are afraid of insects, people who live in high-rises, people who vote ... and on and on and on.  Really, is this going to happen?  I think we all know the answer is no.

In the closing scene a seemingly largish group of people are gathered in a room somewhere in Toronto.  Gathered are children, parents, grandparents, men, women who have collected the dead birds from pavement around Toronto's skyscrapers.  They are arranging the dead birds in a patten of color and species and there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of birds.  Many may have seen a similarly arresting photo published in the Audubon Magazine.  What finally gives the horrible scene some hope is the stunned sadness on the faces of the children as they look at all of the dead birds.  I imagined this as a moment imprinted on their young brains they are unlikely to forget.  Then I imagine them making their school science project on bird conservation, then winning their science fair and being given an award by the city's mayor ... and, so on.

It's not the researchers who are going to save songbirds.  They will highlight the perils, but it's up to the rest of us to do something.  So, we can start at the beginning.  Keep our cats indoors, do not give financial support to [cat] capture, spay and release programs, select and give financial support to one conservation group which you feel best represents your concerns, plant native plants and trees that attract insects and have berries, drink expensive and better tasting organic, shade grown coffee, turn off the lights in your house, believe in the science of climate change, and anything else you can think of, which is probably many more things.  Finally, vote responsibly.  Recognize that activities which imperil songbirds are not going to lead to jobs, jobs, jobs despite the fact that some politician stands on a stage and says as much.  

In the meantime, while you are thinking about how you will save songbirds, you might like to read The (almost) Impossible Task of Filming Songbirds in Flight, from The Messenger's director Su Rynard's blog.   

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Spring at Magee Marsh redux

The temps at Magee Marsh yesterday were actually more comfortable for the human visitors than the week before.  And it was just as sunny. But the north wind must have held some of the avian travelers south.  

On my drive in, this female red-winged blackbird perched along the entrance road in perfect light.  I am disappointed the photo is not sharper, but I am struck by the beauty of this much overlooked bird.

Egrets increased their numbers; so did great blue herons.

The black-capped chickadee gave me a second chance to improve the photos that I flubbed last week.  With perfect light I did a little better this week.  Above and below:  The bird in and paused at the cavity.

Tiny flecks of tree dust in the feathers around the beak can be seen. 

Front view of the female Eastern towhee reveals her beautiful, richly-colored breast feathers.  Another bird that is easily overlooked; perhaps because towhees nest deep in scrubby areas and we don't see the female as often.  Still have not seen a male towhee this year.

Golden-crowned kinglets, winter wrens, brown creepers, fox sparrows and hermit thrushes had all moved out during the week.  Good numbers of yellow-rumped warblers had moved in to take their place. The males were singing and in the absence of other bird song I could hear the yellow-rumped song in isolation and hopefully put it to memory.  The thing is, it's just sort of a generic trilling with buzzy sounds at the beginning and end - not really that memorable.

Yellow-rumped taking off.

A pine warbler made itself very visible actively feeding along the branches and newly emerging tiny leaves of a large tree that seemed to also have many insects.

Caught in shade and sun, the Pine Warbler catching an insect.

I took many photos of this bird and the three shown here were the best. I think this is the first time I have ever had a chance to take photos of the pine warbler.

Palm warblers had moved in and this bird was hoping around in a low tree just at the edge of the board walk.

Above and below:  Looking at these photos you would be forgiven if you thought birds did not have beaks.

Gadwalls, shovelers and green-winged teal had moved out, but blue-winged teal will stay behind to nest.  This pair was resting on a muskrat home.

I almost ignored this guy thinking it was a muskrat, but it showed its fat, rudder-like tail.  Super exciting to see a beaver in the water along the eastern side of the entry road. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Spring at Magee Marsh

Rodolfo Palma and I took a drive down to Magee Marsh yesterday morning to take advantage of our sudden burst of spring and to see what might be present on such a fine weekend.

Above and below:  it seemed that the area has bald eagle nests everywhere.  There are two very close to the boardwalk.  The one above it the same that has been present near the boardwalk entrance for the past several years.  A new nest is nearer the other end of the boardwalk. We also drove the Ottawa NWR trail (third weekend of the month) and there were at least three in view along that drive.

Rodolfo posing in front of the newish (present last year as well; but first time Rodolfo had seen) boardwalk sign.  As luck would have it, I wasn't paying attention and cut off the new sign.  At least Rodolfo is showing well.

Above and below:  a very cooperative winter wren.  This is a bird very hard for me to photograph with my camera.  I was pleased with these; my best, so far, of a winter wren.

I was super pleased with this ruby-crowned kinglet photo - another difficult bird for me to photograph but they were dripping off the trees on Sunday, so I had many chances and just got lucky.

I thought this was a unique bee but apparently nothing other than a yellow jacket.  No wait!  Cody's comment below offers this: hoverfly (Order Diptera: Helophilus pendulus), a hymenopteran mimic.  

Above and below:  female Eastern towhee.  We kept hearing that one was around, but did not see until on our way out.  Posed for just a brief time for these photos.

I cannot recall ever having taken a decent photo of a dark-eyed junco. Until Sunday that it.  I was pleased with this.  Plumage is a little dull, but that's okay.

There was a nest cavity here and I believe the black-capped chickadees were feeding nestlings although I couldn't quite see far enough into the cavity.  This bird posed beautifully, something chickadees rarely do, and I flubbed three very close shots.

Above and below:  An injured snake on the Ottawa NWR road. Undoubtedly run over earlier in the day as it sunned itself on the road. It couldn't move off the road of its own will because the injury had spilled some of its guts and the guts got stuck to the rocks.  I lifted it off the road, still alive, and moved it to the grass.  I don't believe this is a garter snake.  Blunt tail and different head pattern.  Previewing a couple of websites - possibly and Eastern ribbon snake vs. Butler's garter snake. Cody - see comment below - does confirm this to be a garter snake and comments on the features of ribbon snake and Butler's garter snake.

Later there was an uninjured garter snake sunning itself that I shooed of the road so it could avoid a similar fate.  It was moving so quickly and giving me attitude as it did that I was unable to get a photo.

Above and below:  We got to hear the trumpeters trumpet.  Many pairs were around.

Northern shoveler and blue-winged teal were the ducks of the day.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Cold weather birding in mid-April

On Sunday, with trails of frozen mud and snow falling, I birded the large wooded property of Rouge River Bird Observatory/U of M Dearborn.

I came across this white-tailed deer and thought it odd that he was alone.  Then I saw that he was a member of a herd of seven eating the fresh little sprouts coming up through the leaves.

A spot of red in a sea of gray and brown.

On Easter Sunday I say my first eastern phoebe of the season.  Of course, Easter was sunny and warm and little bugs were in the air.  This past Sunday was a different story.  Five phoebes were huddled in a corner of the lake and doing their best to hunt insects off the top of the water.  The sallied out from prominent perches over the lake, picked something off the lake and flew back to their perch.  Every so often they would squabble if one landed too close to another.  In the photo above there were two phoebes.  My camera caught the blur in the low center of the photo just as the bird flew.  The phoebes were joined by my first two tree swallows and my first rough-winged swallow of the season also feeding over the lake.

For about an hour the snow was falling hard but little actually accumulated.

Huddled against the cold and snow.

This coming weekend we are promised better!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Everything is Waiting for You

Everything is Waiting for You 

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.
-- David Whyte
     ©2003 Many Rivers Press

Listen to more David Whyte here

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Book review: The new Sibley field guides

Dog-eared, warped and battle-tested - that's my first edition of the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America.  Can probably tell from this yellowed photo taken on my dining room table - taped together at the binding and edges and with faded-to-white American goldfinch on the cover - my favorite field guide.  Fits nicely tucked in the waistband of my jeans or shorts leaving both hands free and an absolute delight to use in the field.  I remember when once I thought that I had lost my first Eastern guide I felt a brief funk.  Then I found it and breathed a grateful sigh.  I think all birders have some field guide preference and we all have more than one on our bookshelf or in the side pocket of our car door.   For my money, the Sibley guides are the gold standard for birding in the field or on the couch. 

All good things must come to an end; or all good things can be continued.  

Hot off the press, direct from Amazon last evening - fresh, clean, with intact bindings, even made a crisp snapping sound when I opened it wide to look through the pages - I received my new Sibley field guides.

Since I do 95% - 99% of my birding in the east, for now I've just looked through this guide.  But some aspects of both books are exactly the same.

I loved Sibley's preface to the 2nd edition.  You'll recognize his words in your own love for birding.  The Introduction, pages ix - xv is great. Reading this alone will help intermediate and novice birders become better birders in the field.  For the record, I used to think of myself as a good birder, but I've down-graded my skill level secondary to working so much over the past 4-5 years and just not getting out enough. During my recent trip to Panama, I realized that I'm no longer a "good" birder.  Of course, on the trip I feel like I was limited by a cataract in left eye (now removed with new lens implant). But I recently learned that I also have an epiretinal membrane in my left eye which causes distorted vision that will not improve with my new lens implant and new eyeglasses.  Perhaps I also suffer from excusitis.  I just need to get out more.

Sibley's bird topograpy, pages xvii - xxxiii, is second to none.  Molt and plumage, pages xxiv - xxv, is often ignored by many birders.  (Hey, I'm just out here to find birds and have fun.  Don't bore me with molt.) Nevertheless, it's essential.

Then we move on to the images - Sibley's mark of excellence.  I will note that in the 2nd edition full volume guide some of the sparrow/towhee drawings (and a few others that I can't recall just now) were over-saturated.  Of course, something like this is the printer's fault, not the authors's.  I didn't notice this in the new East or West guides.

One thing that I have always liked about Sibley's split guides is that he includes common vagrants.  For example, vermillion flycatcher is not an Eastern bird but is included in the Eastern guide.  His drawing of the vermillion flycatcher first year male will be memorable to many birders who chased a first year male vagrant in Michigan's upper peninsula last autumn.  I didn't see that bird but I saw excellent photos of the bird and Sibley's drawing is spot on.

Seems a little heavier and maybe slightly fatter, but perhaps this is because of the newness. If so it's not significant.  A quote taken from the New York Times book review and on the back cover of the 1st edition is also on both second editions.

"Once in a great while, a natural history book changes the way people look at the world.  In 1838, John James Audubon's Birds of America was one ... In 1934, Roger Tory Peterson produced Field Guide to the Birds ... Now comes the Sibley Guide to Birds."  Pretty much says it all.

David Allen Sibley doesn't need my review of his new East and West guides to help sell them.  They will become bestsellers all on their own.  I wanted to write this for the few birders who might find it helpful.

My 1st edition is now safely retired on my bookshelf and I have a Rose-breasted Grosbeak in my car door pocket.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Belle Isle today

It was cold on Belle Isle this morning.  It was sunny for a very brief time and then gray clouds covered the sky.   

Above and below:  the robin got its worm.

Woodpeckers look great this time of year.  I had only a brief moment to click this shot of a Downy at nearly eye level.

Only slightly better photo (from two weeks ago) of the fox sparrow.

The large woodland pools were all frozen so the wood ducks were limited to the creek and the larger lake (below).  There were a lot this morning, I counted 18, and they were paired up and easily spooked (as always).  I finally got a shot of this female through the bushes.  As soon as I clicked the shutter she and her mate were gone.

Terrible photo of my first yellow-bellied sapsucker of the season. 

Red-winged blackbird.  Good shot of how gray it was.

This beautifully plumaged spring male red-bellied woodpecker was close and at eye level.  My photos should have been better.  It's not often to get this kind of a look at red-bellied.  After taking about eight or ten photos of this bird, I became aware of how cold I was and I knew my outdoor birding was done for the morning.

I drove my car around the park and found pied-billed grebes on the interior ponds.  Most of the waterfowl, except mallards, a few canvasbacks and scaup species. had left the Blue Heron Lagoon.