Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008-What a Wonderful Year!

Yellow Lady Slipper

Wow! I can't believe tomorrow is January 1st. And, yours truly will be another year older- and wiser, I hope. 2008 was a tremendous year for me and I believe 2009 will be just as exciting!

Little Floating Bladderwort
Monarch Ovipositing in April

Hognose Snake. Photo by John Howard.

I thought I would end the year with a big thank you to all my co-workers, friends and family. I think you all truly helped make this a great year. I witnessed so many cool things. Life birds, plants, insects, butterflies, dragonflies and with such great company. I think every outing I went on was a blast. I honestly cannot remember a trip that stunk. Even the ones I struck out on what I was looking for. The company always made up for it. Simple hikes on the property, to out and out quests for rarities, all have been great!

Green Salamander

Hummingbird Moth on Common Milkweed

At first I thought I would list everyone, but I am so terrible at remembering, I would surely forget someone, and I wouldn't want to do that. But you all know who I have been out exploring with. So, here it is:
Thank You!! Thank You!!!Thank You!!! Thanks a million!!!

Spider and Wasp interaction. Photo By Jim McCormac.

Wheel Bug on False Sunflower
Black Widow

Harvester Butterfly on Horse Dung

Fishing Spider

Crested Coral Root Orchid

Two special honorable mentions- One to my sister, Joyce. She has put up with muddy boots, help me wash mud encrusted pants and Keen's, and encouraged my exploring. The other, to my brother, Charles for getting me the awesome camera to help me capture many of these images. Thank you so much!

Happy New Year, Everyone!!!!

Yellow-fringed Orchid

Pink Lady Slipper Orchid

Devil's Urn Fungus with Tiny Spiders Inside

Doe near Side of Road at Eagle Creek


Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Christmas Present from Nature

My sister, Joyce, and I were headed across State Route 741 near Lebanon, OH around 4:30 pm today and witnessed the most amazing sight. We noticed the clouds near the sun were lit up with color, blending from rich orange to yellow to a pale green and a hint of purple. It looked like a short rainbow, but it was not raining. We found out later that this strange atmospheric anomaly is called a parhelion or, the word I prefer, sundog.

Sundogs are formed by reflection or refraction of sunlight by ice crystals found within cirrus or cirrostratus clouds. These are the thin wispy clouds you sometimes see in the sky that seem to go for miles. Sundogs normally occur, but not always, when the sun is low in the sky, like at sunrise and sunset. The ice crystals within the clouds act as prisms breaking up the light into the different wavelengths producing the spectrum of colors. When the light hits the prism-shaped ice crystals, the white light is slowed down causing it to separate into the different colors. This process is called dispersion. If you want to learn more, here is a great site that goes into all the physics behind sundogs. The link at the bottom of this sites page explains how they are formed.

I didn't have my camera with me, but I pulled a few images from Wikipedia. I have seen only one sundog before. This was my sister's first.

I was so glad to share this unexpected and beautiful event with my sister on Christmas Day!StumbleUpon

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Sky Watch-December 24th, 2008

It's Christmas Eve and I am in pain because I ate tooooo much! I am sure I am not the only one suffering from the evils of well-meaning relatives who enjoy stuffing others full of food. Since many of you may not be able to handle a hike, but can surely waddle outside and look up, here is what the night sky should look like. You can see Mercury, Venus and Jupiter if you look toward the Southwest around 40 minutes after sunset. Get outside for a bit and enjoy!


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Long-tailed Ducks

Today I participated in the Northeast Indy Christmas Bird Count here in Indianapolis. The weather was quite brisk, but that did not deter the birds.

We had a great time finding all kinds of interesting birds. Surprisingly, we had over a thousand robins in our count circle today!

We found Greater White-fronted Geese, Northern Harriers, Red-shouldered Hawks and, my favorite, five Short-eared Owls at the Mt. Comfort Airport. You can read the prior post to find out a bit about "shorties".

And the find of the day? Two Long-tailed Ducks, Clangula hyemalis! Long-tailed Ducks are not a common visitor to Indianapolis. These are sea ducks, usually found in much deeper waters. We found these creatures at Geist Reservoir.

This is a photo my friend Cheryl Harner took a few days ago at the Huron City Pier in Ohio of a female Long-tailed Duck. Just take this pic and double it, and you have the view we had today. Two females in winter plumage. These ducks truly enjoy diving, so we had to keep watching for them to surface. Up they would pop, then like miniature Houdinis, they would vanish below the surface.

A cool fact is they are able to dive as deep as 200 feet in order to forage under the water. Wow!

Male Long-tailed Duck in winter plumage. Photo by Arthur Grosset from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

The common name of the duck comes from the extremely long feathers that make up the tail of the male drake. Above is a picture of the male in winter plumage. Such a striking animal. A better look at the male bird swimming can be found at Internet Bird Collections.

The Long-tailed Duck graces the Federal Duck Stamp for the 2009-2010 season. A little known fact is that 98 cents of every dollar from duck stamp sales go to purchase or lease wetlands. This is critical for many duck species' survival. If you love ducks, I strongly urge you to support this wonderful program by buying your own duck stamp, today.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Goose Pond/Hawthorn Mine CBC and Short-eared Owls

Yesterday, Dec. 17th, I participated in the Goose Pond/Hawthorn Mine Christmas Bird Count. The preliminary results turned up 103 species on a very icy day! Don Gorney and I lucked out and had a section with lots of rarities in Hawthorn Mine. Don even found a Black Scoter, a real gem for the area.

I love to bird in this area, especially in the winter. My favorite bird is found there-the Short-eared Owl, Asio flammeus. We saw about 30 of them yesterday. I have seen hundreds over the years, but I never tire of seeing shorties.
Shorty courtesy of Great River National Wildlife Refuge

I had a fairly good shot of a Shorty, but somehow I was struck by the photo gremlins. Usually the pics show up on my photo card. This time it ended up on my camera's internal memory and dang it if I can't find my cord. If any of my friends or family find my cord to my camera, I will buy you lunch! So I am using public domain photos, for this post.

Short-eared Owls are the coolest birds. I love their eyes, piercing bright yellow orbs encircled with black. They look like Tammy Faye did their make-up. I also love their ability to completely disappear. They can hunker down in the grass, so well-camouflaged, you could walk right by and never even detect them. There is an amazing photography book by Art Wolfe called Vanishing Act. One of my favorite photos has a Short-eared Owl that is totally concealed in grasses.

Short-eared owl courtesy of Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge

Short-eared Owls do not have a traditional "hoot". They bark, a sort of "Nyeep", which reminds me of a Monty Python skit. I love the cute little barks that they utter while they float effortlessly over the grasses looking for tasty vole snacks. Snausages!

The Goose Pond/Hawthorn Mine are located approximately 2 hours southwest of Indianapolis near the towns of Linton, Dugger Sandborn and Pleasantville. If the weather is fairly mild, the short-eared owl show will probably be showing until late January.StumbleUpon

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Purple Finches

Today I went birding at Eagle Creek Park with my pal Don Gorney. We were searching for waterfowl and White-winged Crossbills. While we didn't turn up any crossbills and the waterfowl pickings were slim, we did turn up two different flocks of Purple Finches and were able to watch them for quite a while.

For comparison, on top is a male House Finch
and a male Purple Finch on the bottom, captured
by my photowizard friend, John Howard.
"Purple" Finches are really more of a red raspberry color than a true purple. Male Purple Finches can be confused with male House Finches, but House Finches have a brighter red color with a tinge of orange. Also, the flanks and belly of a male House Finch is more heavily streaked with brown, while the Purple Finch has more raspberry color on the flanks. The back of a male Purple Finch has a raspberry wash, while the back of a House Finch does not. The Purple Finch is a bit chunkier in shape and a bit larger than the House Finch. The face of the male Purple Finch is more colorful and the ear patch is red, while the House Finch has a brownish ear patch. The beaks are slightly different. The culmen or upper beak of the House Finch is slightly curved while the beak of the Purple Finch is more conical and slightly larger. This feature is hard to detect unless the bird is close or you have really good binoculars.

Female House Finch on the top, female Purple Finch on the bottom. Photos from Flickr.
Females are a bit trickier. The one solid feature is the dark ear patch with the pale stripe above and below on the Purple Finch that can easily be seen from a distance. The Female Purple Finch has a distinctive brown malar stripe or moustache. Again, Purples are a bit chunkier. Beaks of females are similar to males. The female Purple Finch has a striped back, while the back of the House Finch is more uniform brown. The female Purple Finch has a breast that is more spotted in appearance than that of the House Finch which has thinner streaks.

I had commented that I don't see too many male Purple Finches. Don gave me a good explaination. Young male birds look a lot like females; they have little if any red coloration. If each pair has an average of four young, then that would produce one prominent male and five female-type birds. So roughly only 17 percent of the population is an obvious male.

The flocks of Purple Finch we observed were eating the long, thin paddle-like seeds of ash trees They were scarfing them down like teenage mutant ninja turtles devour pizza. These seeds must be pretty darn tasty. They were also enjoying the berries of dogwoods.

Tomorrow starts Christmas Bird Counts. Keep your eye out for this beautiful little bird!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Winter Blues

One of the things I don't like about winter here in Indiana is the lack of the beautiful color that accompanies the other seasons. No spring or summer flowers. No fall leaves. No brightly colored warblers. Bummer, bummer, bummer. So today I am going to show some "blue" images to help lighten up the winter doldrums.

Eastern Bluebird eggs, Sialia sialis, in one of our nest boxes. We had quite a few successful broods this year with lots of little ones gracing our park with their antics.

Wild Iris, Iris versicolor, from our wetland at Southeastway. We only have a few scattered throughout the wetland and around the pond, so I always look forward to finding them in May.

Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica, can be viewed at Eagle Creek Park, Town Run Park, Holliday Park and Southwestway Park. Such a delicate flower and a real delight to see a whole hillside covered with these beauties.

Butterfly Pea, Clitoria mariana, is a rarer plant from Shawnee State Forest in Southern Ohio. It has such a unique shape to the blossoms and it forms a pea-like seedpod.

Cuckoo Wasp, from the Chrysis genus, a pretty common summer and fall visitor. I love the iridescence of this very docile creature. Depending on the light, it would shimmer green or bright blue as it moved about in my hand.
Downy Gentian or Prairie Gentian, Gentiana puberulenta, has threatened status in Indiana and endangered status in Ohio. Because there are collectors out there, lurking, I will not give the location where this is found. I love its "Pepsi can blue" color. Such a deep blue, you just don't find this very often in nature.


Monday, December 8, 2008

Winter Birding-Christmas Bird Counts

Christmas Bird Counts are a great way to get outside with friends and family and enjoy the winter weather while contributing to citizen science. It has become an annual tradition for many a birder since Frank Chapman organized the first in 1900. There are Christmas Bird Counts scattered throughout the country that one can participate in. Indiana Audubon has good information on the counts throughout Indiana -to find out where a local count is for you, go here. I will be helping out with the Indianapolis Northeast count on Dec. 20th at Ft Harrison State Park. I know I have quite a few Ohio readers and a good place to find info on your local counts are at the OOS site.

My friend John Howard lives in Southeast Ohio in Adams County. Yesterday, he was doing some scouting for an upcoming Christmas Bird Count which will take place on December 14th. I know I will be there. (Mmmmmm, oh, yeah did I mention John and Tina always have good food? I am really there for the birds, yeah, that's the ticket!) Anyway, yesterday he had some great finds.
All photos by John Howard.

American Pipits-three rascals hanging out in his own yard! Wow!

Turkeys- a whole mess of them, 27 exactly, survived Thanksgiving dinner.

And a Ruffed Grouse in a pear tree. No, not really, but it went along with that song (that is now stuck in my head-yikes!)

You might have the usual chickadees, cardinals, etc... but many times you are pleasantly surprised. Two years ago, we observed a Bald Eagle take a Wood Duck at Holliday Park! On last year's Goose Pond Christmas Bird Count, Ross Brittain and Jess Guinn had a flock of crossbills. Don Gorney and others had a Prairie Falcon. (Of course this was AFTER I had left for the day to go to work. Bummer.) My point of all this rambling? You never know what is out there until you get out and look, so go join a Christmas Bird Count and find some amazing things!!!!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Snowy Owl-Harry Potter's Bird

Photo by John Pogacnik, cropped by me.

"You know, Harry Potter's Owl," was how I described the bird to one of my friends. That is usually the easiest way I have found to describe a Snowy Owl to someone who is not a birder. A lot of people have seen the Harry Potter movies and know exactly what I am talking about when I say "Harry Potter's Owl".

And I saw one, in all its niveous beauty, this past weekend. (How's that for a thesarus word? :) )

A few of my friends and I went on a Cleveland pelagic trip on Lake Erie. We went out on the lake, looking for birds, hoping for jaegers and such. Someone spotted this snowy owl along one of the breakwalls, near the airport. The boat came fairly close, and my friend, John Pogacnik, shot a few pics of the gorgeous beast. This is a juvenile owl. One can tell a juvenile owl from an adult by all the dark barring on its feathers. An older owl will not have as much.

The one feature I love best about snowy owls? Their eyes. Those deep, piercing amber eyes.

They are such stunning birds, with an almost ghost-like appearance as they float silently along the horizon. To see one also makes me sad. Most Snowy Owls that visit Indiana and Ohio in the winter, do not make it. Many times these owls get hit by cars and trucks as they are gliding across the highway, looking for a meal. Snowy Owls glide very low along the ground, as they search for food, and this puts them right in the path of a vehicle.

So why do Snowy Owls come to Indiana in the wintertime, you may ask? There normal range is in the arctic tundra, throughout Canada and the Northern United States. To be in Indiana is not a common occurrence. This year we have had quite a few reports of Snowy Owls. Brad Bumgardner has created a map with a lot of the Snowy Owl sightings. One was recently seen on Sunday along I-70, near Richmond. Today, the Indiana Bird listserv reports one in Allen County near US 30. The answer is they are looking for food. Snowy Owls love to snack on lemmings.

Lemmings are cyclic in nature. Lemming populations will increase year after year and the predators, such as owls and fox will increase along with them. Eventually, they will hit a threshold and the predators will apply too much pressure on the lemming population. The lemming population will crash and the abundant predators will be forced to look for food elsewhere. The Snowy Owl will fly southward looking for other food. These cycles seem to occur about every four years.

It has been reported that a combination of a good breeding season, producing many juvenile owls, and a possible crash in the lemming population up north may force many Snowy Owls to the south. Snowy Owls, especially juveniles, should be viewed fairly often this winter. Keep your eye out when you are near an open field this season. You may be lucky enough to encounter one of these beautiful winter visitors.


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Arborvitae- Tree of Life

Today is turkey day. But what I look most forward to is stuffing. See most people call it stuffing, because you stuff it in the turkey. I call it stuffing, because I stuff it, as much as humanly possible, in my mouth. Oh, yeah. Comfort food, bring it on!!! So, after spending the majority of the day cramming my face full of stuffing and other high-carb dishes, I was ready to go for a walk, or in my case a waddle, with my sister.

We went next door to the cemetery, one of my favorite places to walk. We had two dogs and my sister's sister-in-law in tow.

Seal, my nephew's dog, was having a great time, making sure we all saw the squirrels. "Hey, guys, are you paying attention! There is a SQUIRREL over there! If we RUN, we might catch it!"

Sissy, could care less. She is not thrilled that Seal is here for a visit. "Squirrel, shmirrel, you are ruining my walky. Why are you here? When are you leaving, you hyper yellow dog that eats all my treats? GRRRRR!"

As we were out and about, admiring squirrels and checking out gravestones, I marveled at the huge White Cedars, Thuja occidentalis, that were planted around the cemetery. Another name for them is Arborvitae, literally meaning Tree of Life (arbor-tree, vitae-life). How ironic!

The story of how the White Cedar got the name Tree of Life is an interesting one. In the 1530's, French explorer, Jacques Cartier was on an expedition along the St. Lawrence River. He had a crew of 110 men and two Native American youth. Almost the entire crew was suffering from scurvy, a terrible disease that causes swollen joints, nosebleeds, bleeding gums, extreme fatigue, chronic diarrhea, bone fractures, tooth loss, purple spots under the skin and death. On their way up the river, he dropped his young guides off at their home village, thinking that they were close to death. Ten days later, he passed by the village and found the boys completely well! He asked how this was possible and was taught how to chop and boil the leaves of the White Cedar to make a potent drink. In deep gratitude for curing their sickness, the explorers carried the tree back to France. The miraculous tree was named “l’arbor de vie” by the King of France and planted in their medicinal gardens.

What a majestic and stunning tree. Compare how tall it is to the fence behind it.

I love the flattened, scale-like leaves of Arborvitae. It also has a very pleasant scent.

I thought the story was very appropriate today. Realizing many of the first explorers to America, the pilgrims included, often did not get enough nutrients to stave off horrible diseases. It is good to take pause and give thanks for all the sacrifices that were and are made to get us to where we are today.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Alien Encounter or Space Shuttle ??!!

While visiting Goose Pond Sunday, Don Gorney noticed a large satellite-like object moving across the sky. He remarked that it might be the space shuttle. I joked that it might be aliens.

And, sure enough, it was aliens! No, not really. Don went home and confirmed it was the space shuttle and station. Here in Indianapolis, there are a few more opportunities to view it. Click on the link below to find out the times to view the shuttle.

Do you live in another area? You can click this link and put in your country, state, and city and find the best viewing times. Just go under the heading Sighting Opportunities on the left side of the screen and put in your location.

While out there at Goose Pond, where there is very little light pollution, we grabbed the opportunity and looked at some of the other stars and planets in the sky. Don shared this great website, Sky and Telescope, that describes what one can see in the sky each night. This week, Jupiter and Venus are almost in alignment. Click on the link below to see what is happening in the night sky each week.

Happy viewing and Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Message For Us All

This past weekend I went to the Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society (INPAWS) conference at the Garrison near beautiful Ft. Benjamin Harrison Park.

Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens was one of the keynote speakers. His message was potent and timely. He discussed how native plants play a key role in the environment.

Many of us have grown up with the belief that great expansive manicured lawns are attractive. Throw into the mix a few exotic trees and shrubs that are insect resistant, because, heaven's no, you can't have unsightly holes bespeckling the leaves. Make sure you spray the lawn often with chemicals to ensure there aren't any "weeds". Wallah, you have a classic American yard. Unfortunately, this is NOT what we really want. When we rid our yards of native plants (plants that occur naturally in an area) and insects, we are removing valuable food sources or links in the food chain for most living things. Many animals rely on insects for food. Bats, birds, raccoons, opossums, moles, shrews, most rodents, spiders, salamanders, frogs, snakes, turtles, toads, skinks, etc... rely on insects for a great source of protein and fat. Caterpillars, pound for pound, are higher in protein, iron, thiamine and riboflavin than beef. By removing the food source, we are also discouraging the wildlife to visit our yards, as well. Would you live in a place if there was no way to find food nearby?

Photo by John Howard

Can't insect just eat whatever plant is available? Research says no. Insects need native plants to survive. They have forged a relationship with specific plants over thousands of years. Their bodies have adapted the ability to digest native plants. They do not possess enzymes to digest foreign plants. They cannot break down the chemicals that those plants produce to ward off predators. Only plants that insects have a long standing relationship with are the ones they can and will eat. Some of the exotic plants from Asia and elsewhere have no natural enemies here.

Because we, as a group, remove native plants whenever a shopping mall, housing addition, or business park is built, we need to start thinking of ways to replace the insects' food. What we can do is plant a variety of native trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants in our own landscapes to help lessen the blow. It is not a perfect solution, but it will help. And when we restore the plants, the insects will come back, bringing the birds back, etc... We need to realize that not only do native plants play an important role in most animals' lives, native plants ensure our existence as well.
Over the weekend I visted a wonderful place called Goose Pond in southern Indiana. It is a wetland restoration, or a native planting on a large scale. Each year, more new and exciting species return to this area. King Rails have nested there. Barn Owls have been seen there. Whooping Cranes, Ibis, and Snowy Egrets have visited there. The list goes on. In my next post we will discuss this amazing place located only 2 hours from Indianapolis.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Jaegers-Pirates of the Bird World

I really like jaegers. (And no, I am not talking about shots of liquid evil that causes one to do unwise things.) I am talking about the remarkable birds that frequent the lakeshore during the fall and early winter. These are pelagic birds, normally found on the open sea. I had always wanted to see one, like a little kid wants to see Santa Claus. And this past weekend, I was able to view quite a few. Plus, I had great looks at two individuals. I was grinning like a Cheshire cat.

Pomarine Jaeger. Picture from Wikipedia.

There are three species of jaegers that can be seen in Indiana. One is the Parasitic Jaeger, Stercorarius parasiticus. We couldn't confirm the ID on one of the jaegers I saw, but one was most likely a parasitic, judging by size and field marks. Another is the Pomarine Jaeger, Stercorarius pomarinus. We saw one of these very well. And the third is the Long-tailed Jaeger, Stercorarius longicaudus. This one I have not seen yet, and hope to some day. Maybe this coming weekend :)

There are many reasons for my jaeger fascination. First of all, their body is built for speed and agility. Their wings are shaped almost like a falcon's, long and thin and tapered at the tips. This shape allows them to accelerate along the coast at top-notch speeds. They are very acrobatic, twisting and banking extreme turns. They have even shown the ability to execute a backward somersault when in pursuit of another bird.

Parasitic Jaeger. Photo from Wikipedia. Parasitc Jaegers are remarkably agile fliers.

Another reason I like jaegers is because I also like pirates. What does that have to do with jaegers, you wonder? Well, jaegers are pirates. In fact, it would be more suiting for a swash-buckling pirate to have a jaeger perched on his shoulder than a parrot. Jaegers are kleptoparasitic. This means they steal other birds food. They will find a gull or other bird that has a meal. They will pursue the bird and harass it, bombarding it from below and above until the exhausted creature gives up and drops its bounty. Then, the jaeger will dive after the morsel and snatch it before it is swallowed by the ocean's depth.

Long-tailed Jaeger. Check out that tail! Photo from Wikipedia

Lastly, I like jaegers because they are funky-looking. They have webbing between their toes like gulls, but also have strong, hooked claws so they can capture food. Jaegers prey upon birds, killing some almost their size, and rodents, such as lemmings. They have sharp, hooked beaks, so they can rip open their prey. They have attractive plumage, with contrasting dark and light feathers. They have white patches on the wings to supposedly startle birds aiding in the release of the food. All jaegers have two long trailing feathers on their tail when they are in alternate, or breeding, plumage. The Long-tailed Jaeger's tail feathers are pretty obvious, hence the name.

How can one not love a kleptoparasitic funky pirate bird that does acrobatic tricks?! Keep your eye out for this winged wonder at a coast-line near you.