Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Coopers Hawk!!

I heard the thud from the desk up in the loft, where I was perusing Amazon for video games. A bird had hit the sliding glass door that leads from the living room to the balcony where we feed the birds. It was a heavy sound, but not particularly loud. Lisa was down below playing Tomb Raider. "Oh my God, a hawk!" she exclaimed, saying she had seen it out of the corner of her eye.

I bounced down the stairs. "Is it still there?"

It was, sitting in the crab apple just off the balcony. I fumbled with my camera, which I have started leaving in the living room, and finally wrestled it off the tripod. The way the furniture is right now (to accommodate our Christmas tree) there was no way to get the tripod set up where I could see the bird. I cursed at not yet having gotten a quick release.

I finally freed the camera and climbed up on the love seat, to get a few pictures of the young bird between the balcony rails and the birdbath.

Coopers hawk in our crab apple, after a glancing blow off our sliding glass door.

He stayed there for just a minute or two, then flew off to the right. I didn't think he'd gone far, and I was right--he landed in the dogwood on the west side of the house, right in front of the window. Too bad the screen is in!

Fuzzy shot through the screen.

But he didn't stay there long either. Much to my delight, he flew over to the red pine right across from the window, and sat there for five or ten minutes.

I love how the snow piled up on the feathers in front of his eyes.

Eventually I began to hear the cheeps of cardinals, and peeked out at the crab apple to see two females in the tree. He didn't seem to be interested, however, until something flew overhead. He cocked his right eye skyward...

..then twisted around to get a better look at someone flying past.

And then he was off!

I watched him fly past the balcony but he missed his prey, what I guess was a cardinal or dove--I only caught a glimpse. But he broke the hunt off quickly, and flew into the pines along our road, where I lost him. But what a treat to have such a good look at him, so close, on a snowy December afternoon.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Bird ID: Finches and Sparrows

When I have time I like to set the tripod and camera up in front of the balcony doors and take photos of the birds. We have several feeders up there, which keeps the raccoons and squirrels out of them. It's pretty wide open, of course, with only a crab apple tree down below to provide cover, so we get different birds here--or at least in different numbers--than what we get at the feeders behind my studio, which is more sheltered.

One of the varieties which seem to show up more on the balcony are the finches. I feed pretty much the same stuff in both places but the finches flock to the balcony--along with the invasive house sparrows, whose numbers seem higher this year than before. This is where we saw common redpolls and pine siskins several years ago, and where six evening grosbeaks were spotted in November--but who left before I could get any pictures of them.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I was playing with my camera, seeing what sort of quality I could get in poor lighting conditions, and noticed a pine siskin perched atop one of the feeder poles. It is the first one we've seen here in a number of years. Unfortunately I had to shoot through the window screen, which has made for a pretty poor image.

Pine siskin on our balcony.

These little birds are very easy to confuse with the female house finch, another abundant invasive. The two easiest ways to tell them apart are by looking at the wings and beak. Siskins have yellow on the front edge of their primaries, but that is hard to see in the photo above, and is not always obvious. They also have narrow, pointy beaks, used to get inside pine cones, and I find this to be the best way to tell them apart. In addition, they are smaller than the house finch, but that is difficult to judge unless the birds are side by side.

Pine siskin, front view

Below is a female house finch for comparison. Note how stout the beak of this bird is.

Female house finch, not to be confused with a pine siskin.

The American goldfinch is closer in size to the siskin and has a similar beak shape, but neither the male nor female is streaked. Male and female goldfinches look very similar in winter, but I think this is a male. The wing bars tend to be whiter than the female's, and they have a little more yellow on their heads.

American goldfinch in winter.

Here's a female house finch next to the goldfinch.

Hey, you're blocking the camera!

Winter brings a number of sparrows south to our feeders as well, including the American tree sparrow. Another easily confused bird, this little beauty looks very much like a chipping sparrow. The quickest way to tell them apart is the American tree sparrow has a yellow lower mandible...

American tree sparrow.

...and a black spot on its breast.  Also, while their ranges overlap, chipping sparrows are not generally seen in Southeast Michigan in the winter, American tree sparrows are absent in summer, so time of year can also be a hint.

A bit blurred, but note the black patch on the breast.

The dark-eyed junco is another winter sparrow that visits our feeders. I just love this little bird.

Male dark-eyed junco. The female is somewhat lighter and more brown.

And because I couldn't resist, check out this gorgeous female Northern cardinal. I have never seen a female with so much color before. I have watched her both on the balcony and behind my studio. Her colors make her easy to spot among the other female cardinals. Cardinals have been showing up in abundance again this year. I counted 12 in the crab apple tree a few days ago, and in the past I have seen as many as 22 behind my studio.

Female Northern cardinal.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Finally! New artwork on the table

It has been a ridiculously long time since I've been in the studio creating new art. I completed a piece in July, and did a few commissions this fall, but other than that I just haven't had a chance to get out here and work. It sure feels good to be back in the studio.

This new piece is a great blue heron. It's been a few years since I did one and I figured its time. This is a close up of the head so far. It's a big piece with an absurd amount of detail and I'll be surprised if I get it done before the end of the year. I will post more in progress photos as the piece develops.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Leelanau Waterfowl

Before I had stumbled upon the dead birds on the rocky beach I had managed to take a few photos of some live waterfowl. I recognized these buffleheads, but the other birds, who were much farther out and already moving rapidly away, were a mystery.

A pair of bufflehead. What a great name, bufflehead.

There was a narrow rocky promontory to my right that would have afforded great views of the shoreline but I didn't feel like walking that far. Interesting, our desire to build things. These would have made good blinds, if I'd had time to sit a wait.

I decided I needed a somewhat more hidden position to photograph these birds from. I noticed a small bay to my left that had some vegetation closer to the water. I walked back to the trail and cut over to the bay, and squatted down in the dead grasses.

Lake Michigan and Leelanau Peninsula. Taken with my iPhone.

I was able to get a few shots of the mystery fowl. There's a common merganser on the left, and a bufflehead on the right, but what the heck were these other birds?

A few minutes later they took to the air. Good damn thing, as my legs were falling asleep!

I snapped away, hoping to get a photo or two I could use to ID them.

I am always excited when I manage to get photos of birds in flight in focus!

This image finally confirmed for me that these were common goldeneye. It's fuzzy but you can see the black wing bars in the white patch on the secondaries. Only the second time I'd seen these birds.

I walked back to the car along the path that took my past the lighthouse.  All decked out for the holidays it was resplendent in it's new whitewash.

Leelanau Lighthouse. Taken with my iPhone.

As I neared the parking lot I saw this sign:

Taken with my iPhone.

The cedar it referred to was this hulking giant of a tree, one of the most interestingly shaped trees I've ever seen. I think it looks like a woolly mammoth.

Giant white cedar. Taken with my iPhone.

I must say how very happy I am with the image quality I am getting from my iPhone. I upgraded a few months back from a 3s to a 4s, and I love it. The file sizes are bigger and the overall sharpness of the image is much better. I only had one SLR with a big lens on it with me, so I was taking snapshots with my phone. I was delighted to see how good they looked when I enlarged them on the computer--better than the Nikon point and shoot we have. By touching the phone's screen you can dictate where the camera focuses and meters, giving you some limited control over the exposure. It's been great for those times when I haven't felt like lugging two cameras around, or fussing with switching lenses on one camera. I may use it more extensively in the future.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Mortality on the Beach

The tip of the Leelanau peninsula is a low-lying, rocky spit of land that pushes into the northern reaches of Lake Michigan north of Sleeping Bear Dunes. My good friend Karin lives about a half hour from the point, and I decided I was going to take a few hours and drive up to see it.

Leelanau State Park encompasses most of the tip, and consists of two areas--a campground and lighthouse on the point and a trail network a bit to the west, separated by private land. I drove up to the campground as my main objective was not to hike but to see the "beach" and look for waterfowl.

The water level is low, and there was a wide expanse of rocky shore past the campground. A tall stand of vegetation blocked my view of the water, but I moved through it carefully in case any birds were on the other side. Sure enough, as I emerged, I saw a raft of waterfowl moving quickly away through the water--I'd been spotted. Rats.

I was walking carefully across the bumpy beach when I saw, directly in my path, a dead long-tailed duck. My heart sank. I'd seen my first long-tailed duck last year in East Tawas, and it was such an exciting moment. Now to see one dead on the beach, headless, was very sad. I examined his beautiful tail feathers and webbed feet.

Dead long-tailed duck on the beach at Leelanau State Park. (Taken with my iPhone 4s, which takes amazingly good photos.)

When I looked around the beach I saw another carcass to my left, so I went to have a look. Again I felt that wave of sadness when I found an immature common loon, belly up on the rocks. Some critter had claimed it, defecating on its right wing.

Dead immature common loon.

I examined this bird closely too. It's not often one gets to be this close to these birds. I just wish it were under different circumstances.

I wandered around a bit more, and on my way back across the beach I found another dead loon, this one an eclipse phase adult.

I have heard about the mortality of waterfowl due to botulism in the Great Lakes, but hadn't seen it up close and personal. This really brought it home for me. Not because the birds were dead--death is a part of life, I accept that without qualm. What bothers me is that the death of these birds is a result of our carelessness and ignorance.

What I've read is this (and it isn't pretty):  Clostridium botulinum bacterium is naturally occurring. It becomes concentrated under certain conditions, and scientists think that invasive species to the Great Lakes are playing a big part. Invasive zebra and quagga muscles (which arrived in the ballast water of foreign ships) filter the water to a much clearer, "cleaner" condition than is normally present in the Great Lakes. This allows sunlight to penetrate the water to a much great depth. This, combined with elevated air temperatures, causes the water to heat up. As the water warms and sunlight reaches farther down, algae grows. Too much algae and the water becomes oxygen depleted. This creates an environment where botulism thrives.

How the toxin enters the food chain is another mystery, but scientists speculate that it is eaten by invertebrates on the bottom of the lakes. The invertebrates then are eaten by fish, primarily the invasive round gobie, a bottom feeder. The toxin affects the fish's nervous system and they swim erratically or float near the surface. The are easy pickings for larger fish and fish-eating birds, like loons. Botulism also affects the loons' nervous system, ultimately making it impossible for them to hold their heads up, and they drown. Once they wash ashore, they may be consumed by other animals, and maggots growing on the decomposing body are eaten by other birds, and the mortality spreads.

So, basically, our introduction of invasive species and the warming of our climate are almost certainly to blame for the tens of thousands of waterfowl and loons that have died in the past decade. It's a clear example of how our carelessness has effects that go far beyond what we can imagine.

You can watch a short video about the die-off this year at Sleeping Bear Dunes here.
(Lori later informed me that one of the birds that eats maggots from dead fish and birds is the critically endangered piping plover.)

Monday, December 3, 2012

Pine Grosbeaks!

A few weekends ago I made a quick, two day trip up north to run some errands. A shop where we had our work was going out of business, I had a commission to drop off as well as some work for another gallery, and I wanted to visit a couple of indie bookstores to see if they'd be interested in carrying Lori's Holly Wild book series.

I pretty much look for any excuse to get me up north so that I can get a chance to see some new birds.  This turned out to be a great trip.

I arrived in Interlochen with about 30 minutes to kill, so I parked near the beach at Duck Lake and grabbed my binoculars to see who might be out on the water. A large flock of Canada geese were hanging out near the playground, and while I gave them a wide berth they still grumbled and moved off into the water. I watched them for a minute then looked around the lake. I saw a pair of hooded mergansers to my right, then spied another pair of birds almost directly in front of me, but at some distance.

I was pretty sure these were new birds for me. I took several minutes trying to ID them on iBird. I went through all the waterfowl families before I hit on grebes. Sure enough, this was one for the life list--red-necked grebes!

This image is not cropped to show how oh so far away they were (with a 420mm lens!).

I hadn't brought my camera down, and I was starting to run out of time before my appointment, but I decided I wanted to try to get some photos. I ran back to the car and tore through my gear, got lenses and extenders on the camera and the camera on the tripod without dropping anything, and ran back down to the water. I tripped and nearly fell over a downed branch and had to tell myself to relax and slow down.

By the time I got to the water they were further away so the images aren't great, but at least I can tell what they are! All of the range maps I've seen for this bird show it in the Great Lakes during migration but not on inland lakes, so this was pretty exciting.

Red-necked grebes on Duck Lake, Interlochen.

The following day I took a few hours and drove up to Leelanau State Park, at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula. This spit of land forms the northern end of Sleeping Bear Dunes to the west and creates the west arm of Grand Traverse Bay to the east. It's gorgeous country and lots of grapes are grown here, along with cherries and apples. I had always wanted to go up to the park so I took this opportunity to do a bit of sightseeing and hit some bookstores along the way.

On the road not far from the park I saw some blobs on the asphalt. At first I thought they were parts of some dead thing, then realized they were moving, so I slowed down. As I approached they took to the air, and I watched as they flew up into some trees near the road. I didn't know what they were so I pulled over and got my binoculars out. I was SO excited when I realized they were pine grosbeaks, another new bird for me. Two in 24 hours!

Pine grosbeaks, un-cropped.  I was afraid to get too close and spook them.

The camera had trouble focusing on them in the branches, and with the dim light the images aren't sharp, but I was trilled to get to watch them picking bits out of the white spruce.

Male pine grosbeak.

Female pine grosbeak. Her color is subtle but she's no less striking.

I watched and photographed them for about 10 minutes before they flew off into the deeper woods.

Pine grosbeak pair. Such a pretty couple!

I did finally make it to Leelanau State Park, but it was a rather bittersweet visit. That's for next time.