Sunday, March 25, 2012

Artwork: American Kestrel

Been working on this piece for several weeks, debated on whether or not to do a background.  It is being entered in the Woodson Museum's Birds in Art competition, and since I've not done many pieces with background I decided now was not the time to try it!

"Siren Song"

This beautiful little lady has become one of my favorite pieces.  I love the pose and the expression.  I wanted a title that reflected her energy, and played around with words that have to do with bravery, spirit and so on.  I wasn't happy with what I was finding when I somehow came upon "siren".

I did a little research on the Sirens, which were apparently at one point portrayed as women/bird hybrids.  This from Wikipedia:  "The tenth century Byzantine encyclopedia Suda[19] says that from their chests up Sirens had the form of sparrows, below they were women, or, alternatively, that they were little birds with women's faces."  I thought this was really cool because the kestrel is know colloquially as a "sparrow hawk", which is the other title I had been considering.

Then I found a poem by Margaret Atwood called "Siren Song", excerpted here:

"Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?"

That sealed the deal!

I'm really excited about this piece and the title.  I strive to present my subjects as individuals, and to tell a story, and I feel I've done that with piece.

Thanks for looking!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Merritt Island Buntings

 Florida 2012 continued

One of the reasons we didn't camp longer at Canaveral National Seashore, and the whole reason we traveled to Florida in February, was to be able to spend a day, or at least an afternoon, at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.  Laying to the south of back country area it was on our way back to my Grandma's house, so the plan was to go there after our camping trip.

The refuge, like so many other places, is "managed".  I has to be in order to make it as attractive to birds and other wildlife as possible.  The whole area used to be salt marsh until we came along and decided we didn't like the mosquitoes that bred in the mud flats, so we built dikes to hold in rain water by dredging the mud and sand and piling it up.  This of course messed up the entire natural processes of the marsh and destroyed a lot of prime bird habitat.

So now that we understand the importance of these places we've devised ways to try to replicate the natural state of the marsh.  Rather than knock down all the dikes (what a job that would be) gates were put in to allow water to flow under them.  The marsh is managed by opening the gates in March and allowing the area to drain (it doesn't completely) and letting the grasses grow.  In late summer/fall the gates are closed and the area is flooded, providing habitat for migrating waterfowl--and lots of plant matter for them to eat. What this meant was that if we wanted to see lots of waterfowl, we had to visit before March when the marsh would be drained and only the wading birds would be left.


We stopped first at the Visitor's Center.  I had one purpose in mind, seeing a Painted Bunting.  This is one of the birds at the top of my "must see" list, and I knew that they hung out at the feeders at the Center--Lisa had seen one several years back, and two years ago I had missed one by less than five minutes.  We took a little walk first, and I watched a pair of Osprey on their nest.

Oh Fred, we're being watched again.

Fred, not now!  Have some modesty!

We walked part of the path, but it was a hot day (86 degrees) and we were tired from our long night at the campground, so we soon wandered back to the Visitor's Center.  Lori and Lisa went inside while I set the tripod up near the feeder and waited.

And waited.

I spoke with a fellow who used to live in Michigan who had taken a bunch of pictures of Painted Bunting that morning with a borrowed camera and they didn't turn out very well.  He was back with his own camera and hoping the bird would return.

Now I get wiggly when I know the girls are waiting for me so after 10 minutes or so (I know, not long enough!!) I folded up the tripod and turned to leave, having only seen blackbirds and grackles.  I turned back slightly to speak to someone and glanced at the feeder over my shoulder.  I nearly squealed when I saw who was sitting there, having a late lunch.

My first Painted Bunting!

I couldn't get the tripod down fast enough.  I was afraid these weren't going to turn out because the scene was strongly backlit and the feeder was in the shade, but they did, and I am thrilled.

There were actually two males on the feeder!

Had I not paused to talk to that fellow I would have missed this amazingly brilliant creature!  He perched and nibbled his seed, having no idea how much excitement he was generating.

After a few minutes another group of blackbirds came swooping in and scared off the buntings so I packed it up.  One of the park employees, hearing my concern about the light and whether or not the photos would turn out, suggested a fill flash.   Well duh--aren't I the one who is supposed to know that?

As we walked to the parking lot Lori noticed two Wood Storks flying towards us.  I got the camera up in time to get a few shots as they flew overhead.

Next:  The park yields another "must see" bird!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Camping in Canaveral

Florida 2012 continued

I have say how difficult it is today to put a thought together.  The weather at home right now is stunning.  While we are still officially in winter, it is 74 degrees.  The clouds that popped up earlier have dissipated and the sky is a perfect blue.  The evening sun still holds its winter hue of silvered gold, and a light breeze is blowing.  It's the kind of day that makes you just stare off into space, until you feel like taking a nap.

I have never known weather like this in Michigan in March, and while I am enjoying it immensely, it scares the hell out of me at the same time.  I was relaxing on our front porch reading Joe Hutto's Illuminations in the Flatwoods when our neighbor across the road started up some loud machine--at 7 pm--and I gave up on the evening and came in to try to write.

On to Canaveral....

Looking back I wish we had stayed two nights on the island rather than one.  I was feeling funny about not spending enough time with my grandma and we were already going to be gone most of two days, so we opted for an overnight trip.  If we do this again we'd definitely do two nights.

I had wanted to arrive at the park shortly after they opened at 9am but we didn't make it till nearly 9:45.  We got our permit at the visitor's center and drove down to launch site #7, which is really just a parking lot with a spot on the shore of the lagoon cleared of plants.  It took us a while to get all of our gear unpacked from the van and trailer, get the boats to the water, and load them up.

We had two big concerns--the wind, and not knowing where we were going.  We had a pretty decent map, but the problem is this is not a hiking trail, and there were no signs telling you what is what.  We guessed at which island we were headed for but had to make a rather round-about go at, to stay out of the wind as much as possible.  I had most of the gear with me in the canoe, and while this helped keep me paddling straighter it was still tough going in the wind. I didn't take any pics on the way over, having already resigned myself to the need to paddle and pay attention to what I was doing rather than taking pictures.

Lori and me (right), Mosquito Lagoon.  Photo by Lisa.

Coming around the lee side of one of the many small islands put us on a direct course for our campground, as I had hoped.  It also put us paddling directly into the wind, which while it's hard work is also safer than trying to paddle sideways to it.  Lori found the site first, and I lumbered along in the rear.  We landed around 1 pm.

Lori in front of campsite H1.  Photo by Lisa

We explored a bit then set up camp, eager to try out our new back country gear.  I don't recall now when I realized I'd left my sleeping pad back in the van, but I know I wasn't happy about it!

Campsite at H1.  We were please to see a fire pit and picnic table.
View from H1

Live oak
We explored our surroundings some more and discovered some very odd plants, including this one called coontie, or Florida Arrowroot, of the Sago-palm family, according to the Audubon Field Guide to Florida we'd picked up at the visitor's center (hard to believe it took me nearly 30 years to do that!).

It is a fascinating plant, and we found some that had gone to seed--hard to miss them!  I so wanted to chew on one--they look like corn but were maybe three times the size, and fairly soft.  But being at least 45 minutes by canoe from the mainland I decided that wasn't such a good idea.

Coontie seeds, I assume.
The sky began to cloud over and we checked the radar on our phones (pretty good service there).  There were some storms over the Gulf but we decided we had time to head out for a paddle.  Lisa sat in the front of the canoe and Lori went in her kayak.  This allowed me to take some pictures.

Orange Island

We stayed to the lee side of the island as there was still a pretty stiff breeze blowing.  Right off the bat we found a colony of fiddler crabs busying themselves with whatever crabs do.  This absurd-looking male, with one enlarged claw, was apparently guarding this hole.

Male fiddler crab

The female has equally sized claws.  Some crabs were perhaps 1 1/2 inches, most were less than an inch.  They scurried about, wadding up balls of sand from which they extracted the detritus that they eat, then spit them back out.

Female fiddler crab

Fiddler crab tracks and balls of sand

As we were paddling, Lisa spotted this huge lightning whelk laying on the bottom.  We turned around and she managed to hook it with the handle of her paddle.  The thing smelled awful, it's resident deceased and moldering inside.  A big glop of it oozed out when she picked it up.  The book says they grow to 10 inches but this one was 12.

Lightning whelk

We saw very little wildlife while we were there, but this male Belted Kingfisher posed for a portrait.

By the time we got back to the campsite, around 4:30 or so, the storms had advanced quite close, and were now accompanied by some warnings.  We didn't get a chance to cook any dinner (we'd brought home-made beef stew that we'd frozen so it would keep longer).  We grabbed some snacks and climbed into the tents as the rain began to fall, around 5:00.  It rained, and rained and rained, and the wind blew, and it rained.  We got a break around 7:00 and we all climbed out and used the latrine.  I wandered and stretched my legs, but by 7:30 round two had arrived and I was back in the tent.

As I mentioned I'd left my sleeping pad in the van, so I did the best I could with my camp chair laid flat and a beach towel.  I don't think I've ever been more uncomfortable in my life.  Our pads are Big Agnes, an inflatable pad that is 2 1/2 inches thick but very light weight--luxury in the back country, if you remember to pack it.  It rained a good part of the night--I know, since I was awake for most of it.  At the first sign of daylight I was up and out of that tent.

We decided not to bother with the stove so had a cold breakfast of granola and fruit.  We decided to just pack up camp and start heading back as the wind seemed to be increasing.  We hugged the north side of Orange Island but eventually had to paddle through open water.  I was not concerned with tipping, but after a while, as the wind continued to pick up, I was concerned about water splashing into the boats--especially the kayaks, which sit so much lower in the water.  We had to zig-zag a bit to keep ourselves perpendicular to the waves, which reached at least a foot and a half and were starting to make white caps by the time we made landfall.

Tired and hungry, we loaded up our gear and the boats, then settled in on the edge of the parking lot for a hot lunch of beef stew and whole grain baguette.

Me dishing up lunch.  Photo by Lisa

Next: Wonders abound at the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Lumbering Limpkins, Batman!

(Florida 2012 continued)

"What the heck is that?"

We were making our way back to the boat launch when I spotted a bird wading near the shore of the river.  I didn't have a clue what it was, but knew it was a life list bird.

I put my paddle down and grabbed my camera, still near at hand after photographing the manatees.  Fortunately I was mostly out of the wind and so managed to stay fairly near to the bird.

Turns out this bird had been perched in a nearby tree when we had initially paddled to the lagoon, and the girls had been arguing over what species it was.  I was so busy trying to paddle that I never stopped to look.  I'm glad it stuck around!

It continued to feed along the bank then slowly made its way onto the shore.  It wasn't until we got back to the house and pulled out the camera and a bird book that we identified this as a Limpkin.  I thought it would be in the shorebird family but it is a Grueforme, related to cranes and rails. It is apparently not a particularly common bird, and is found almost exclusively in Florida.  That made our sighting of it that much more exciting!

I was exhausted after this paddle on the river and was afraid I'd be really sore the next day, but I wasn't.  We spent Tuesday hanging out with my Grandma and visited with my uncle Cliff who built a condo on the beach (and lives in one of the penthouse units--nice!).  We spent Tuesday evening getting ready for our overnight back country camping trip to Canaveral National Seashore, which I'll talk about next!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Manatee Tails

I think the part of a manatee most people see, aside from a quick glimpse of a nose as the animal comes up for air, is the tail.  I know it's the first--and only--part of a manatee I saw, nearly 20 years ago during a trip to Captiva Island in Florida.  Three of the great beasts were feeding in the marina, and in the murky water I couldn't see anything but their tails, which were just at or above the surface.  The entire time I watched they never came up for air.

Impressive, paddle-like tails are the manatees' only means of propulsion, so they have to be strong and wide.  The tail is an extension of the backbone--if a manatee ever had back legs they are long gone now.  Front flippers and tails are all they get to conduct their aquatic acrobatics.

Their tails look to me like prickly pear cactus.

I was happy it was bright enough to stop the action and catch the water sheeting off their tails.

The last photos are a series of shots of a manatee splashing its tail on the surface.

We left the run shortly after this.  The park closed at 6:15 (sundown) and we had to get back to the launch and load up the boats.  But on the way we were blessed with one more gift from the park.

Next:  A life list bird!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

More Manatee Mania!

 Florida 2012 continued.

I promised more manatee photos and here they are!  As I said in my last post, we spent close to an hour watching these gentle creatures rolling and cavorting in the shallow waters of the Blue Spring Run.  Flippers, snouts, tails--all manner of body parts were rising, rolling and splashing.  It was an amazing sight and an incredible experience and I have a whole new opinion about these beautiful creatures.

We watched several pairs frolicking, although at least one pair wasn't a pair at all but a triplet.  These two look like they're smooching!

Nose holes open...

Nose holes closed.

Manatee hugs.  Click on this image and you can see their spikey little hairs!

You can clearly see three manatees in this photo--two noses and one back.

Algae actually grows on the backs of these slow-moving, shallow-water creatures.

I love this shot.  I had no idea manatees had toenails until I looked at this picture later that night.  I then read that they have three nails, but I'm pretty sure I see four.

This shot is a bit blurry but I love how you can see, thanks to the angle of the light, all of its finger bones.  It's one way you know these were once animals that walked on dry land.

We kept hearing the sound of them exhaling as they'd come up for air, and I was so excited when I caught one in the act.

Every once in a while one would surface and just sort of hang there, as if posing.  I think this manatee looks a lot like a walrus from this angle.   Look at that fuzzy snout!!

I will have one more batch of photos and then I'll move on to the first of my bird "firsts" on this trip, as well as our sojourn into the Canaveral National Seashore.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Manatee Madness!

I have to start this post by admitting that I have never been a big manatee fan.  Not that I dislike them--I just never quite understood the appeal.  Sure, they're cute--if you can see them from underwater and you like large gray lumps of floating blubber.  I have seen a few on various trips to Florida, all of them at Blue Spring State Park.  Last year we even had one swim very near our kayaks, which freaked us all out--what if it surfaced under our boats and flipped us?  Not the water I want to take a dip in, black and infested with alligators. 

But manatees are why most people come to Blue Spring, as it is place where the manatees can find relative warmth during the chill days of winter.  The water that comes out of the spring is 72 degrees.  Manatees, being warm blooded, need warm water in order to survive.  In very cold winters there can be a 100 or more crowded into the warm waters of the run.  This year, due to the relatively warm winter, the numbers were down.  I heard a ranger mention that there were only 14 there that day.  That still seemed like a lot but what do I know.  Lori was excited to see manatees so I was happy there were any there at all.

So up until this trip I had really only seen manatees as most people had--from an observation deck, looking down, the animals flattened out by the refraction of light through the water.  They always seemed so sedentary, lifeless almost, and the most exciting thing we ever saw happen was one lift its nose out of the water to breathe.  What was the big deal?


We were getting ready to head back to the boat launch after our potty break at the day use area.  Lisa overheard a ranger telling a couple in a canoe who where on their way in that there were a few manatees very near the end of the run, where it meets the river, if they wanted to paddle back and take a look.  The area is cordoned off--they don't allow boats of any kind in the run when the manatees are present--but boats could be pulled up to the rope.   We had already paddled near several manatees in the river that day, and at least one was in the lagoon with us, but we decided to paddle over and take a look.

When we got there, this is what we saw:


Manatees were splashing and playing and rolling in the shallow waters.  I couldn't get my camera out fast enough!

Manatees in pairs and threes frolicked in the run.  Playing?  Mating?  Both?  Who cared, it was fascinating to watch.

Our water-eye view combined with the evening sun made the perfect combination for watching this spectacle.  We were absolutely in the right place at the right time.


We were in awe.  We had no idea these animals would put on such a show.  They came closer and closer, so close that I couldn't get them in the frame.  A few even swam under our boats, much to the delight of Lori and Lisa.  There was much squealing and laughing, and we were so glad we had stopped to take a look.

I took over 500 photos (thanks, 8 GB card!) but only 100 or so were worth keeping.  I won't bore you with all of them, but you can look forward to at least one more manatee post!