Friday, January 6, 2012

Calliope Hummingbird Road Trip

“I’ll be back at 11am to pick you up,” Dave said as he headed out the door for work.  He’d already spoken to Sister Marty this morning, and we were going to head to North Vernon, Indiana and try to see the Calliope Hummingbird that was coming to a feeder.  This was one of the few times that all three members of our birding competition team, aptly named, On a Wing and a Prayer, could be together to go birding, and we were all anxious to see this bird.  It would be a life bird for me.  Calliopes breed in the northwestern US, migrate through the Rockies and overwinter in western Mexico.  How this individual wound up in south central Indiana is a mystery.

At 11am, Dave was back and we jumped into the truck.  The weather is absolutely perfect – clear skies and 50F weather.  We met Marty in Mt Vernon and gave the homeowner of the feeder a call.  She’d seen the bird this morning, and we were welcome to come on over.  When we arrived at the house, Ken from Columbus, OH was already standing against the fence in her backyard watching for the bird.  We introduced ourselves to Norma Jackson, signed her guest list and quickly walked around to the backyard.  She had two feeders set up; one with a heat lamp directed toward it, and another one further out in the yard with heat tape wrapped around it.

Within minutes, the hummingbird landed in the badford pear in the backyard and zipped down to the feeder for a drink.  

We quietly stood in the yard for about 30 minutes and the bird came in and out about 3 times.  

She’s one of those female hummers that looks just like a bunch of other female hummers.  But, we were able to snap a couple of photos that really show the decurved bill.

We were visitor numbers 224,225 and 226 to Norma’s yard since Christmas Eve.  I’d say she’s had a pretty busy holiday season!  

We left the Calliope and headed over to Muscatatuck NWR and went into the visitors center to check out their feeders.  We were rewarded with great looks at both house and purple finches, fox, tree, white-crowned and white-throated sparrows as well as standard feeder birds, chickadees, titmice, etc. 

We had decided to head over toward the big lake and see if we could see otters, when we spotted two photographers frozen in place at the edge of the woods.  We crept up slowly in the truck – well, I guess we didn’t creep, considering the truck is a diesel.  So we turned the engine off and asked them what they had.  “Screech Owl,” the man replied.  We quietly stood by the car for a few minutes and watched the hollowed out hole in the tree, but didn’t see anything.  We moved on and birded the rest of the road and turned around.  On our way back past the photographers we checked the owl hole again, and sure enough, there it was.  A beautiful rufous morph eastern screech owl.  Score!

We picked up a few more duck species at the lake and a red shouldered hawk sitting on a telephone wire on the way into North Vernon.  Team On a Wing and a Prayer is up to 80 species and its only January 6th!  I think we’ll stop for Mexican food on the way home.  Birding is exhausting and I’m starving! LOL!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Great Gray Roadtrip Final Post

We were back on the road by 2:45pm with a brand new alternator in the truck.  Pretty fast service for a dealership, and everyone was really nice.  The employees certainly live up to the company name, Friendly Ford!  After a little SNAFU finding the Ambassador Bridge over to Windsor, Ontario, we were finally in Canada.  

You can tell we're in our truck, see that crack in the windshield on the left?  Going through Customs was a breeze.  They were more interested in Steve than anyone else.  Guess he looks a little sketchy with that shaggy beard!  LOL!

After following the directions from the bird hotline, we pulled onto Road #2 and saw a bunch of cars pulled over about a mile ahead.  The sun was just touching the horzon, and we only had a few minutes of light left.  You could feel the tension and anticipation in the truck as we got closer to our destination.  As we approached Arner Townline Road, we saw about 10 cars lining both sides of the road just ahead.  

A group of people were clustered together on the right shoulder and a few others were standing on the opposite side of the road.  There, on the telephone wire, not 20 feet from the nearest person, was a beautiful Great Gray Owl!  

Massive, and beautiful in rich chocolate brown, white, and gray, it glowed in the late afternoon light. 

It was so unconcerned with the mass of people snapping pictures of it, that it didn’t even look at them.  It just turned its back on us and focused on watching the grass in the ditch for prey. 

We pulled over at the first open spot on the road and quickly jumped out of the truck.  We were able to snap a couple of great pictures, as the bird methodically worked the ditch from telephone pole to telephone pole. 

It would intently watch the grass and then rotate its head to the other side and scan the roadside for a few seconds.  Then its attention would return to the original spot in the tall weeds. 

Eventually, It flew across to the north side of the road into a small tree about 5 ft from the road and kept hunting.  

The bird didn’t even react when the Canadian police car drove by and announced on the load speaker that we needed to stay off the road.  Then, suddenly, the bird dropped down into the weeds in the ditch.  

I heard 45 cameras click.  After foraging for a second or two, it emerged with a vole in its mouth.  Incredible! Then, it turned around, facing all of us, and proceeded to gulp the vole down in 2 swallows. 

I never imagined that I would get this good of a look at a Great Gray.  It was amazing!   Life Bird number 563 for me, and 655 for Dave and 450-something for Steve.  Woohoo!!  Happy Dance!

We were back in the car and heading home by 5:15pm.  Decided not to spend the night and just drive home.  Dave says the truck has more pep now that it has a fully operational alternator.  So, what the heck, let’s just come home.  It’s been a very successful adventure!

Great Gray Roadtrip - Part 2

The canned elevator music is softly playing ACDC, which is really surreal.  We're sitting in the lobby of Friendly Ford in Monroe, Michigan.  I'm working on my A&P lecture syllubi, notes and Powerpoints, and we're waiting for our truck to be fixed.

At about 10am, we entered Michigan, and the "check battery" light came on.  Steve located a Ford dealer nearby, and now at 2:15pm, we are getting a new alternator and have been informed that the brakes and tires are bad.  LOL!  What a roadtrip!  Good thing we packed our overnight bags, cause at this rate, we may not get to Kingsville until dark.  We ate our tuna fish sandwiches and watched Steve sleep at one of the salesmen's desks.

Good news is that there is a Comfort Inn near Kngsville that has special "birder" rates and we made reservations.  So, our trip has now become an overnight adventure!

Great Gray Owl Road Trip – Part 1

“Tomorrow, I want to be in Ontario,” Dave said. “What? No way,” I adamantly responded. I knew what he wanted.  He wanted to get up at the crack of dawn and drive up to Ontario, Canada to see the Great Gray Owl that had been spotted just outside of Point Pelee.  If we saw it, it would be a Life Bird for both of us.  “Absolutely, no way.”

I mean, really.  We just completed our annual “Big Day” of birding on News Years Day to kick off the Chili Challenge Birding Competition in SW Ohio.  Granted, it had been a slow day, and we only saw 65 species, when our goal (set by Sister Marty) was 89 species.  But, still, I can only take so many days of birding in one month! 

Since Thanksgiving, we’ve done quite a bit of birding: Black Friday we drove 700 miles to get the Black-tailed & Black-headed Gulls outside of Cleveland; in early December we flew to the Rio Grande Valley of southern Texas and got the Black-vented Oriole, Hook-billed Kite, Golden-crowned Warbler, and Rose-throated Becard; in mid-December we did both the Oxford and Whitewater Christmas Bird Counts; last week we drove to southern Tennessee to see the Hooded Crane; and yesterday was our Big Day. Being the work-a-holic that I am, taking this many days off to go birding was beginning to put pressure on me.  Granted, I AM on break, and I don’t have to work – it’s not like I’m getting paid.  But, I had planned to use my time during Winter Break to finish a manuscript, write the draft of our NSF proposal, work on the next edition of The Ohio Cardinal, get my syllabi and lectures written for next semester and post notes to Blackboard.  I was starting to feel that pressure you feel when work starts piling up.  So, I said no way, we can’t go to Ontario tomorrow. 

We drove Manda to the airport to go back to school in South Carolina.  It had been great having her home for the holidays.  For the first time in at least 5 years, 4 of our 5 kids were home for Christmas, and I was a happy mama. The house had been full of chaos and laughter for 3 weeks now.  Dylan will leave on Friday, and then it will be just Dad and I and the pets in the farmhouse, and we’ll go back to the daily grind of academia. 

We left the airport  and drove over to visit mom at the nursing home.  She’s so sweet now.  She doesn’t know who I am now and that’s alright, I happily tell her that I am Jill, her daughter, and that I love her.  Sometimes she reacts with recognition, but most often she smiles and says, “Really?”  Yep, I tell her and I go on to tell her about myself.  I trimmed her fingernails, lotioned the parchment like skin on her arms and talked to her about our Christmas.  She tried to talk to me, but her words don’t make sense.  I can see in her eyes that she is frustrated that she can’t say what she means, and I tell her that it’s ok, she’s fine and I’ll take care of her. I can’t imagine how frustrating it is for her to be trapped in her own mind.  I sat with my arm around her and she described the colors of all of the Christmas decorations hanging in the room.  She got confused with the colors blue and yellow, but she was proud that she could identify the snowflakes and round ball ornaments.  For the first time, tears welled up in her eyes when I told her I had to go.  She wanted me to stay, and I wanted to stay.  I wish I could keep her at home with me, but I know that she is better off here, where her life is structured and familiar.   It won’t be long before her mind will move into the scared and panicky stage.  God, I wish she didn’t have to go through that.  I wish I was smart enough to figure out how to stop the slow degradation of neurons in her brain…  She was such a vibrant woman who had raised a family and built a successful career as a real estate broker. 

We were a little late leaving the nursing home and headed over to dinner at Steve’s house.  We were meeting his folks for the first time.  We’ve known Steve for years, since he was a freshman in Dave’s BMZ class at Miami, and he’d impressed us with birding skills.  He’s spent years working with us at our banding stations, travelling to both Mexico and Alaska with us to  study birds in El Cielo Biosphere Reserve and in the White Mountains.  But, we had never met his family. 

As we sat at dinner, telling tall tales of our birding adventures, the subject of the Great Gray came up.  Suddenly, I blurted out, “You know, if I bring my laptop along, I can work on my manuscript, etc., while we’re driving up to Ontario. I could get quite a bit done.   Why don’t we go for it?  Steve, do you want to go?”  WHERE DID THAT COME FROM??!!  Did I just say that? 

Dave looked at me with stunned elation in his eyes.  Not one to miss an opportunity, he immediately took my suggestion and began brainstorming how we could leave first thing in the morning, drive the 5 hrs up to get the bird, snap a couple of pictures and turn around and be home that evening. A quick trip. I was caught up in the excitement of the moment, and enthusiastically added that Dylan could take care of the dogs while we were done.  We both looked at Steve and said at almost the same time, “You in?”  Steve was already grinning from ear to ear.  “You got a passport?”  Steve had just come back from conducting the hawk count at Pelee this Fall, so he knew exactly where the owl was.  As I looked from Dave to Steve while we discussed the details of the trip, I realized that the rest of Steve’s family was staring at us, open mouthed, over their cherry cheesecake.  We’d totally forgotten everyone else in the room and gotten caught up in the rush of planning our spur-of-the-moment road trip.  Um, oops.  Steve, sheepishly glanced over at his folks who were smiling at these three crazy birders.  Within minutes, Steve was packed and tossing his bedroom trying to find his missing passport. 

So, here we are, driving west on Interstate 70 toward Dayton at 7:30am.  It’s 27F and cloudy and the weather forecast for Ontario is for temps around 30F and gale force winds.  It’s going to be bone chillingly cold.  We’re off on another birding adventure!