Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Chorus of Frogs

(Taking a break from the Florida posts to get back to Michigan and springtime!)

Ah, spring in the north woods. Muddy trails, mosses poking their heads out, migrating ducks on the newly opened waters. Sandhill cranes call from the marshes, the pileated drums out his territory, and the robin sings again at dusk and dawn.

And then there's the vernal pond.

You can hear the cacophony a quarter mile away. Not just a chirp or two, but an orchestra--no, more like three or four orchestras playing at once. As you draw near, the sound starts to rattle around in your head, like marbles in an empty can. Get close enough, and it stops, abruptly, like someone changing the channel, and again you hear birdsong and the breeze through bare trees.

But stand there long enough and the concert will begin again, just a chirrup here, then one there, then in moments dozens, perhaps hundreds, begin their songs, trying to out-compete his neighbor.

The cause of all of this (very literally) deafening noise?

This little pipsqueak:

The western chorus frog. All 3/4 of an inch of him. Standing by the edge of the pond and trying to find one is difficult, as only about 1/2 inch is sticking out of the water. Instead, let your eyes rest on one spot, and pay attention to where the sun glints off moving water. Ah, yes, just there, and there. Now you see their yellow vocal sacs, filling and deflating, as they call to the ladies.

Their vibrations fill the air, ripple across the water. I would be curious to know the decibel level at the edge of one of these ponds--the sound really is overwhelming. A 500 pound bear could walk up behind you and you would never hear it coming for the noise of these tiny little frogs.

There are others in the pond too, like the wood frog (1" to 3", a veritable giant compared to the chorus frog), who makes a sound not unlike a duck,

and the leopard frog (1" to 3 1/2"), whose soft chirrings are nearly lost in all the other noise.

I spotted this group of three chorus frogs and started watching them.

Then some action. The frog in the top right of the frame started to make his move. He chased the frog in the top left of the frame off, then came for the third.

A bit of froggy wrestling ensued. Now, all this time, a wood frog had been hanging out just to the right. Perhaps he saw this as his chance to get rid of these noise-makers and restore some quiet to the neighborhood. He's moving in....

..and then he threw himself into the fray, clamping his slimy legs over both chorus frogs! Take that! and that!

But too much slime makes for a poor grip, and both chorus frogs escaped, then used their assailant as a raft. Serves him right.

At this point I'd been squatting in the mud for at least 20 minutes and my feet had gone numb, so I had to move on. As I stood up, the pond fell silent again, and I heard the call of a downy woodpecker in the distance.

Ah, spring in the north woods.....

Friday, March 26, 2010

Black Skimmers--The Oddest Bird on the Beach

I have entirely too many things I want to share with ya'll. The rest of my February trip to Florida. My last trip to Florida. A walk along the Platte River in northern Michigan from a few weekends ago. Pictures of chorus frogs in a pond in the rec area nearby. What's a girl to do?!? Start with something unusual, I suppose, and there are not many birds more unusual than the black skimmer.

The skimmer is an unusual bird for many reasons. According to Sibley, they hunt primarily at dusk and dawn, and often at night, when the small fish they prey on are nearer the surface. Their eyes are small but have large pupils for better night vision, and much like other nocturnal creatures have vertically-slanted pupils that help shut out bright sunlight.

Below you can see how much longer the lower bill is than the upper.

They hunt by feel, flying low and dipping their long lower bill into the water, waiting for something to bump into it.

This is kind of blown up too much, but it shows the knife-like bill of the skimmer, streamlined I supposed for slicing through the water.

After the sun came up and the sky brightened, I was able to capture a nice series of shots of a skimmer flying by.

There was some beautiful light out there that morning, so expect to see more posts from this day.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Pelican Dive

Ah, it's good to be home. No, really, I love Michigan this time of year. Sure, Florida has a very subtle change of seasons--as a matter of fact the live oaks are in bloom--but it's nothing like it is here. I rejoice in the slow awakening of the world around me, noting the days when the first red-wing blackbird sings for its territory in the marsh across the road, or the first chirpings of the chorus frogs in our neighbor's pond.

As promised, I went down to the beach early one morning--the only way to beat the spring break crowds--and waited for the pelicans. It was a dark morning, cloudy, with a bitter west wind numbing my fingers. But pelicans gotta eat, no matter how windy or chilly, and I did my best to take some photos. I had to set the ISO (remember film speed?) pretty high in order to get a fast enough shutter speed to not blur the shots, so they are pretty grainy, but I was short on time and couldn't wait for it to lighten up.

Like many diving birds, the brown pelican will hover somewhat as it locates its prey, and then tucks into a sort of a stoop, although not as graceful as a peregrine falcon's. They steer with their wings and perhaps control their speed with their huge webbed feet. They do not seem to go very far below the surface, as you'll see in this sequence of shots.

Here's another sequence of shots:

It was great fun, picking out a bird and trying to follow it in the viewfinder as it dropped out of the sky. All around me the beach was dotted with clusters of shore birds and gulls and terns. I will post more beach pics tomorrow, but for now, one last shot from another sequence that I really liked.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Lunch For A Pelican

The brown pelican is one of my favorite birds. They appear to be plain, but in the right light you can see that they are quite colorful, with white necks, yellow heads and those sky-blue eyes. The look odd and yet are graceful and stately. Watching a group soar along the crest of the waves makes one think of fighter planes in formation, dipping and rising together to commands we cannot hear.

They are also, as I mentioned in a previous post, the only pelican to dive for its food, and if you've never seen one dive, I can tell you it's quite a sight--their long beaks like spears, they twist and turn in the air, tucking their wings at the moment just before piercing the water's surface.

Unfortunately, that is not the series of photos I have here. No diving allowed in this pond. But there was what appeared to be a juvenile pelican floating around on the pond as I strolled the shore. At the east end, where I stopped to take pictures of the alligator, I noticed the pelican swimming, seemingly focused on something, towards the southern shore not far from where I stood.

The wind had been blowing from the north-westish, pushing waves against the south shore. I had noticed several dead fish there. I don't know if that's what this bird was after, but as he neared the shore, he struck at something in the water...

...then turned and swam back out of the reeds. Clearly there was something in his pouch, a rather large something.

He tossed his head back and I could see the shape of a fish, thanks to the back-lighting of the sun.

Here it is blown up a bit. I haven't the foggiest idea how they eat something that large!

As he lowered his head...

...the fish poked out one side. Ouch! Gives me indigestion just looking at it. Shortly after this he flew a short distance out into the pond and beyond my sight.

I am actually heading back to Florida this evening, will return Wednesday the 24th. My grandmother has asked me to help her clean out her house, take things to Goodwill etc and generally tidy the place up. I guess at 87 she is starting to look towards the end of things. I feel fortunate, at 43, to still have a grandmother, and I have a great deal of respect and admiration for her--she was never one to shy away from a challenge. She was a business owner, lived in Costa Rica for a spell--even though she couldn't speak a lick of Spanish--played tennis until she broke her wrist a few years back, and still bowls two nights a week despite failing eyesight and a bum right hand that has forced her to start bowling left-handed. She even bought and renovated an old school bus, ripped out most of the seats and installed bike racks for the bike club she formed back in the 80's.

So hopefully I will get back down to the beach and get some shots of a diving pelican. I won't be doing much if any hiking on this trip, so the rest of the Florida blogs will be from this past trip in February.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Great Egret

Shortly after I arrived at the pond I noticed a great egret flying towards me. Up came the camera and I started shooting.

The majestic bird turned directly toward me for a moment...

...then changed course again to fly past. I held the shutter button down and trusted the camera to do it's job.

She changed course and flew back towards the trees, and the sun came out, so I had to readjust, and got off a few more shots before she flew out of sight.

It is easy to be captivated by these dynamic creatures. They are hard to miss, grand in stature and graceful. It is because of birds like these that I never paid much attention to the ducks and other waterfowl, and even the songbirds. I am learning to look a lot closer at what's around me, to pay attention to the little things, and have realized that they are just as dynamic and graceful.

Next: pelican lunch (no, I didn't eat a pelican!)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Pond Life

As I approached the pond I immediately scared up several small waterfowl. I took a few quick shots before they flew off to the other shore, then sat down with my bird book. (When sitting down on a trail in Florida it is wise to check first for ant hills.) I have no doubt that I've seen these birds before, but I didn't pay them much attention. As a matter of fact, I found some pretty decent photos I took of some last year when I was in Florida. These little birds are American coots.

I walked along the far shore from where the birds had flown, snapping pictures, then realized there was a different bird out there with the coots. Out came the binoculars and the bird book. Ah! The red-billed bird is a common moorhen. I had actually seen a female moorhen not far from my house last summer, making its way to the little creek that runs along side our road. I hadn't gotten a very good look at it as it was in some tall grass, but after checking the bird guide I was pretty sure that's what it was. It was nice to get a better look at one.

Here is a closer, but fuzzier, shot of a moorhen.

A better shot of some coots.

I was so captivated by the coots and moorhens (which, by the way, are both in the Gruiformes genus, the same as sandhill cranes) that I nearly overlooked this little fellow, which turned out to be a pied-billed grebe. So within 30 minutes or so I'd identified three birds that I had never (knowingly) seen before. I was so excited!

This bird however was quite familiar--the anhinga, sunning itself in a tree on the little island in the middle of the pond.

As I made my way around the pond I saw movement up ahead, as a small songbird flew down out of a shrub and onto the path. I stopped and immediately took some photos, even though I was quite a ways away. Any attempt to get closer only causes the bird to take flight. Turns out that this is a palm warbler, a bird that summers in southern Canada. Note the black eye stripe and yellow under the tail. I am surprised I have not seen one here as we are on their migration route. Another bird checked off my list!

As I stated in a previous post, I had hoped to see an alligator. The couple I met at the trail head mentioned that they had nearly walked up on one sunning itself on the bank of the pond on a previous hike. So I had been most careful as I made my way around the shore, stopping frequently and checking the banks--one can't be too careful when hiking alone, even in a place that seems pretty tame. Finally, at the eastern end of the pond but thankfully out on the island, I spotted this gator, tucked in behind the dead tree.

Magnificent creatures, unchanged for eons, so highly evolved and perfectly adapted to their habitat that they have seemingly stopped evolving. I have great respect for these animals.

Next: a great egret fly-by and pelican lunch