Saturday, April 19, 2014

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for .... SCIENCE?

The quest for knowledge in nature and science is always taking me beyond the comfortable, passed the limits of the familiar, and well into territory that can at times be downright scary!

 At the cabin (which sits adjacent to Burr Oak State Park), I make a habit of sleeping with the windows open all year.  My bed is positioned directly beside a window so that I can listen to and watch wildlife throughout the night.  And when I can help it, I won’t even run a fan because I do not want any white noise interfering with my listening.   I adjust temperatures with blankets - electric blanket in winter, and lightweight sheet in summer --- simple, eh? 

Last Sunday morning, my eyes flew wide open when I heard a scream outside my window.  A terrible scream - the stuff that fills your nightmares and graces Hollywood screens.  Long, drawn-out, like a lonesome wail.  Not a forced scream of terror, but a haunting scream of sorrow.  The time was 5:37am, and the April sky was still completely black.  The scream repeated and continued at least half a dozen times more.  Phil and I both went out on the screened porch, which is cantilevered over the side of the hill, high from the ground and safely out of reach of wailing creatures!  We listened to the scream, but had no answers.

The next night (Monday), I heard the scream again.  This time it was farther away and I only heard it once.  Frustration began to set in.  “What is it???!!!!”  I asked myself over and over.  What could it be?  I spent a sleepless night, hearing the sound in my subconscious over and over, wondering its source.  A rabbit’s agonizingly slow death?  A coyote hunting?  A black bear summoning a cub? The scream of a barn owl (which I admit, the thought gave me a thrill, but I highly doubted the possibility)? How about raccoons… they are noisy?  Nah!  I knew that none of my ideas were very plausible.  But I couldn’t place the sound!  Finally, I settled on Sasquatch… more in earnest than in jest.  Seriously. 

So, I went back to Nelsonville and put my week of work in, all the while, moderately distracted by “the scream”.  By this time, I’d spent countless hours on the internet and had had numerous conversations with my Dad (who loves this stuff just as much as I!) 

About mid-week, I started to zero in on a strong possibility.  Red fox!  I had listened to several sound clips and youtube videos that sounded almost identical to my “memory”, but therein lies the problem.  My MEMORY.  No one (other than Phil) had heard the sound.  I was going on a memory that was tainted by listening to hundreds of other sound clips over the past several days.  By this time, I was doubting my own reliability and validity.  The red fox seemed to fit and we have CONFIRMED red fox sightings on our property (I even have a photo from last year!), but I would need to hear it again.

Last night (Friday night), I lay in my cabin bed, wondering if I would hear the scream again.  After all, four days had passed and the creature had surely moved on?  I listened to a pair of barred owls call back and forth down in the valley.  The owls were far away, but my trained ears didn’t miss a hoot.  I could hear three separate spring peepers and a possible leopard frog.  I also heard Canada geese overhead throughout the night.  But alas, sleep finally overcame me and I fell asleep without hearing “the scream”.  I don’t know when I finally fell asleep because I refuse to keep a clock in my cabin bedroom.  (I check my phone when I MUST know the time, but other than that, I put it face down and out of sight). 

Somewhere, sometime in the middle of deep sleep (not REM, not dreaming, not half-asleep, but deep and hard-to-wake-from sleep) I heard “the scream”.  I sat straight up as I knew it was a “now or never” moment.  But I was tired, dizzy, and confused.  It took several minutes for me to understand what was happening and get my senses in order enough to grab my phone.  It was 3:27am. 

I jumped out of bed, knowing that I must hurry, and threw on the clothes that I had staged by my bed the night before in hopes of this very situation.  I grabbed my extra bright flashlight (that we lovingly refer to as the “moth light”), set my phone to "video record", and headed outside.   As soon as I opened the door, I could hear the screaming in the direction of Burr Oak Lake.  It was close.  I guessed 100 yards.  The screaming continued in measured intervals.  As the scream filled the silent night, I would clench up, hold my breath and strain my eyes to see.  And then it would stop.  The silence between screams was less than 30 seconds and with each silence, I would wonder if the creature was coming closer.

I was aware.  Hyper-aware!  It was surreal.  And I knew that my actions could easily be deemed as thrilling, exciting, daring, or stupid.  I knew that.  But it didn't matter.  My primal "urge to know" drove me forward as if I were on auto-pilot.  

Finally, "the scream" was within 40 feet of me!  The sound was LOUD and I could hear the creature moving through the leaves.  I kept my cool, though my hands were shaking and sweaty and my heart was pounding audibly.  I scanned the edge of the forest with the flashlight, catching the eye shine of the creature several times. 

And finally, I was able to see a vague shape.  FOX!!!  YES!  Red Fox for sure!  Oh, happy day! SOLVED! ... and as if the fox knew I had completed my mission, he gave one last wail, and then retreated deep into the forest.

I went back to the cabin and listened to my sound recordings over and over, feeling so proud and satisfied that this mystery was finally going to be put to rest.  I didn’t rest however, too much excitement!


This scream is common in Red Fox.  It is known by many as the “Vixen Scream”, as a female fox is called a vixen.  Vixens scream during mating for seemingly a bunch of different reasons.  I’ve read lots of information, and the bottom line is – foxes “scream” and our fox screamed!  

Thursday, August 8, 2013

I'm still writing....

just not here.

I realize this blog has been left a ghost-town.  And there is a good reason for that  -- Facebook! I am still doing all of the things I love... all of the things that I've written about here on this blog - hiking, camping, cabin-ing, birding, bugging, nature-ing, teaching, photographing, gardening.  It is all still happening, but I have found that it is WAY EASIER and way more efficient for me to use Facebook to reach my targeted audience.
Most of my blog readers are friends and family anyway.  If you are reading this, it is probably because you know me in "real life".  I use Facebook daily to connect my friends and family with nature.  I can upload pictures quick and write an anecdotal caption easily.  I hit the "post" button and instantly it goes out to my list.  Here at the blog, people may or may not read. 

So, if you want to follow my nature stuff, find me on Facebook. 

I may come back here, to the blog, sometimes.  I don't know yet.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Bird Listing

Birders love to keep lists.  Some people keep a list for the year and try to find as many species as possible. This is called a "Big Year".  Other people are more casual and relaxed about listing, but still keep a list for the year.  Some keep a list for a day, or a week, or a month.  Some keep lists for certain locations.  But most every birder has a "life list", every bird they've ever seen (or heard) in their entire life. 

There are also "rules" to list keeping.  Officially, the American Birding Association has a list of rules for those keeping a "Big Year" list competively.  But most birders adopt and abide by their own set of rules.  Most will count a bird if it is heard and 100% identifiable by ear.  I count "by ear" birds because some (like whip-poor-will and owls) are extremely difficult to find, but much easier to hear.

I keep three lists.
1. Life List (all of the birds I've seen since I've been birding, 5 years total)
2. Yard List (birds seen or heard within my yard, includes fly-overs)
3. Cabin List (all species found within our 30 acres of land: both wooded and pasture)

In addition to the three lists above, I keep lists each time I go out birding.  I enter these lists at eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society's citizen science project. Learn more about it here.
Because I am birding the same location over and over, I tend to be very skilled at a certain number of bird species. I see the same species, and combinations of, all the time.  However, when someone new shows up, it is a cause for celebration and a challenge for me to learn a new bird.

Here is the list from Memorial Day weekend: (30 acres of pasture and woods)
1. eastern phoebe
2. northern cardinal
3. eastern bluebird
4. turkey vulture
5. barred owl
6. ruby-throated hummingbird
7. mourning dove
8. american robin
9. eastern kingbird
9. common yellowthroat
10. chipping sparrow
11. song sparrow
12. brown-headed cowbird
13. european starling
14. baltimore oriole
15. eastern wood pee-wee
17. field sparrow
18. scarlet tanager
19. wood thrush
20. carolina chickadee (active nest!)
21. tufted titmouse
22. red-bellied woodpecker
23. blue jay
24. american crow
25. american goldfinch (as seen from the cabin kitchen window!)

26. house finch
27. hooded warbler
28. yellow warbler
29. tree swallow
30. house sparrow
31. red-winged blackbird
32. red-eyed vireo
33. white-breasted nuthatch
34. brown thrasher
35. pileated woodpecker
36. carolina wren
37. ovenbird

Monday, May 6, 2013

Nesting Cardinals

Cardinalis cardinalis                     Order: PASSERIFORMES                          Family: CARDINALIDAE

 I really love cardinals! Who doesn't?!  They are beautiful, excellent singers, and our state bird!  Early in spring (sometimes late February), the male cardinal is the first of my neighborhood songbirds to really sing in earnest.  His "cheeeeer, cheeeeer" song is just what I need to hear after a long, hard winter!

Cardinals are sexually dimorphic, meaning that the male and female look differently.  The bright male is vibrantly suited in red... a color that the female cardinal finds irresistible! :)  The female is more drab... a light brown, pinkish color. The fact that she is drab in color is no accident!  Her coloring allows her to blend perfectly with her nest allowing her to avoid predation.

Cardinals are here year round and often flock together without problems... in fact, you've probably seen many at backyard feeders.  During breeding however, they tend to become very territorial... to the point of fighting their own image in car mirrors, house windows, and anywhere with a reflection!

In the picture below (taken during the spring of 2012), the male cardinal seems to be "courting" the female.  He passed a seed to her during this intimate "kiss".  I can only guess that he is attempting to convince her that he would be a wonderful provider and that she should chose him to father her children!  .... a bit of anthropomorphism (applying human actions and feelings to animals!)

This spring, at the farm, I've been keeping an eye on a pair of cardinals.  I was certain they were nest building in a small stand of white pines.  Sure enough, I inadvertently flushed Mama from the nest while investigating the area.  She gave her nest location away when she left the nest.  I was delighted to find three perfect eggs!  After snapping a quick photo, I left the area, so that Mama could return.  By the way, I once learned that it is best to leave a bird's nesting location via a different route than you arrived... as to not leave a human scent trail directly to the nest for other predators to follow.

Mama Cardinal set diligently on the nest all week.  Birds are really great mothers.  She would allow me to come within reasonable distance.  Although, I never pushed the boundary too much.  The following photos were taken with a telephoto lens.  You can almost "feel" her stillness and silence.  She never flinched, but kept a very close eye on me!

Saturday, May 4, I checked the nest for the first time in a week.  I was absolutely thrilled to find that two of the eggs had hatched!!!  The third had "pipped". This means that the baby had poked his way through to make the first crack in the eggshell.  I knew I had arrived at a very critical time.  The two chicks were only hours old and the third was about to hatch.  I took ONE photo and backed away quickly.  Mama returned to the nest within minutes.  The following morning, she was on the nest.  I said a "well wish" for the family as I drove my car away back towards home.

It is now Monday... and raining.  I wonder how they are doing?  Did they survive the night?  Is the chilly day making feeding difficult?  Is everything okay??  .... will it all be okay?   This is where it gets tough for us humans.  I have to trust in the cycle of nature and know that what is, is what will be.  I wish the the best and will update later.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Nesting Brown Thrashers


Toxostoma: rufum                  Order: PASSERIFORMES                 Family: MIMIDAE

I’ve come to rely on them…. the brown thrashers.  They are like dear old friends, returning each spring to the same tree to sing their peppy and spirited song… and to the same tangled mess of shrubbery to raise their family.  I like having them around, that’s for sure!

Brown Thrashers are a funny bird.  Along with mockingbirds and catbirds, they belong to the “mimic group”.  They imitate the song of others, though not as impressively as the mockingbird.  They sing in fast little bursts… repeating each phrase twice.  Some people claim the brown thrasher announces the garden planting time with their song: “drop it, drop it… plant it, plant it…. In the dirt, in the dirt”.  Mnemonic devices (applying human words to bird songs) are fun and make for an easy way to recognize and identify birds by ear while in the field.

Our thrasher typically arrives sometime in mid-April.  He sings from the top of a cherry tree announcing his territory and intentions of nesting.  

Last year, like every year, the thrasher family once again chose a very thick tangle of thorny shrubs for their nest.  The nest was large (the thrasher is a tad larger than a robin), and about four feet off the ground.  I was worried that it would be too accessible to prey, but then I remembered that the VERY sharp thorns provide adequate protection.  I have tried to get close to the nest in the past for study purposes, but the thorns tore my skin and my clothing.  Those smart birds know what they’re doing when they choose the razor sharp thorn bush as their home.  Last year’s successful nest fledged four babies.

This year, the thrashers moved their nest to the neighboring thorny shrub, about ten feet away from last year’s site. Mama is already on the nest and things are going well.  I don’t know how many eggs she has because the nest is so well protected with thorns that I am unable to get close to it.  She sits tight and watches me like a hawk, er uh.. thrasher!  She won’t budge and holds perfectly still.  I try not to stress her and give her adequate space and respect.  My zoom lens allows me to get close without being physically close.  Yet, she is still watchful and cautious! 

Do you see Mama Thrasher in the above photo?  Look very CLOSELY!!  She is a master of camouflage and holds perfectly still.  Doesn't this make you wonder how many times you have walked  RIGHT PAST a bird's nest without realizing it!?

Brown Thrashers have yellow eyes.  That is what I look for when trying to locate a nest in a tangle of thorns.  I know that I won't be able to see her body, as it is perfectly blended, but her watchful eye will catch my attention.

 Look at that tail!!  I love her form.  If she were an Olympic athlete in the event of nest sitting, I'd give her a 10!  Such beauty, poise, and grace! 

I hope the nest will be a success!  It is a little behind last year’s timeline, but that’s okay as the spring has been cold and fickle. 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Nesting Phoebes!

eastern phoebe,
sayornis phoebe      order: PASSERIFORMES       family: TYRANNIDAE 

Phoebes are part of the "flycatcher" group.  They catch flies (and other insects).  Their flycatching habit is one of the reasons they must travel south for the winter.  However, they don't travel quite as far as some of the other flycatchers.  Also, they are the first of the flycatchers to return in spring and the last to leave in fall.   If they are being quiet and not giving themselves away with their "fee-bee" call, they tend to be tough for me to identify against the other flycatchers.  I have to study them and take identification photos to compare them to the other birds in the flycatcher group.  There is one hint though:  the phoebes are known as "tail-waggers".  While perched, they have an odd little habit of constantly wagging their tail up and down!

It all started two weeks ago.  I was outside on the screened porch of the cabin, when I heard the phoebes calling their raspy, unmistakable, "fee-bee... fee-bee". Phoebes are easy to identify by ear.  Once you hear one, you won't forget it.  Plus, the phoebe says his own name... which is very helpful!

I noticed that the phoebes were making trips to the old wood shed.  I suspected they were scouting nesting locations. They like to nest in the overhangs and eaves of man-made structures.  However, they also like natural cliffs and rock faces.  I was lucky enough to watch a phoebe build a nest and raise a family at the Indian Rocks on our property two years ago!

On this particular day, two weeks ago, the phoebes kept making their rounds to the forest edge, back to the large hickory tree, then back to the wood shed.  I was certain they were nest building.  However, by the end of the day, something had changed their plans.  They abandoned that location and didn't return.

The next morning, bright and early, I heard them once again right outside the screened porch by the hickory tree.  This time, they decided to fly UNDER the CABIN!  I was perfectly still and quiet, very aware that I could frighten them and derail any future nesting plans.  I left the porch for the day and tried to "ignore" their frequent under-the-cabin trips.

After the passing of a week, I decided to go under the cabin and search for the nest.  I looked and looked and looked.... and then looked some more.  I saw no nest and no birds. How disappointing!!  I reported to Phil that they must've moved elsewhere and there was no nest to be found.

A few days later, Phil had to go under the cabin to mount and install our hot-water tank.  Sure enough, it was PHIL who found the nest!!  He could not wait to tell me that the phoebes were nesting directly beside the water tank.  He had inadvertently flushed Mama from the nest, which clued him as to where to look.

This is a view of the side of the cabin.  Look underneath and you will see the hot water tank suspended from the floor joists.  (by the way... that unsightly messy mess WILL SOON be covered by under-pinning! Under the house is our "basement storage"... and.. well... it's messy!)

The arrow is pointing to the location of the nest.  Even if I were to lay on my belly, the nest is not visible from the side of the cabin.  One must go entirely under the cabin to see it.  Very cleverly hidden!

Phoebes build sweet little nests... all snug with moss.  If you discover a nest in a similar location, but made of mud, it is probably the work of swallows.  BUT if the nest is made of moss... phoebes are probably your bird!

 Mama, under the cabin... making sure that I don't come any closer!

.... so mystery solved!  They are tricky little birds.  I'm glad that they found a very secretive and safe location to nest.  I will leave them be as much as I can.  I flushed Mama once while first approaching the nest, but now that I know where it is, I won't do it again.  I can lay on my belly from under the cabin and try to get photos with my zoom lens.  Hopefully she will allow me to get photos if I keep a respectable distance. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Nighttime at Meadowlark Cabin

It STILL has not been warm enough for us to thoroughly enjoy our screened porch and to dine the night away while listening to the nocturnal creatures of the forest.   Instead, we bundle up in sweatshirts, sit close together snuggled for warmth, and toast to all things good!

This is my favorite time of day.  Always has been, even when I was a little kid.  Unlike a lot of normal people, I actually feel a rush of energy at the end of the day, as the night air settles in and the sun disappears until dawn, I feel alive and keenly aware of my surroundings.  No, I am not a vampire... just a night-owl.

 The view of the twilight woods from the porch.

I am totally fascinated by space, the moon, constellations, etc.  Unfortunately, I've never learned the constellations and it all seems like a foreign language to me.  One of these days, if I feel I have the time to devote to it, I will study it in depth, but for now, I am completely satisfied just being a casual observer and admirer.

I do know that the above photo is Orion.  I was mighty proud of this photograph since it was my first real attempt at constellation photography, which is quite tricky I might add.

..and this is the Big Dipper (or little dipper)... heck, I don't know which it is, but I know it is a dipper... or a drinking gourd.  I would rather refer to it as a "drinking gourd" because I do love Civil War era history and I believe this constellation was very important to The Underground Railroad's travelers.

Good-night from Meadowlark.