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.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Spider Serenade

Oh, you sexy little thing, you!
Would you believe that I was serenaded by a wolf spider in love?  Well, actually the song of love was not intended for me, as I am lacking the required six extra legs.  Indeed, the love tune was intended for the female brush-legged wolf spider.

Allow me to explain:
On the Thursday of last week, I meandered through the woods, looking for serendipitous gifts of nature, when I decided I was in need of a peaceful rest.  I found a stately tree that beckoned me to prop my tired self down, lean against the trunk, and snack on some curds and whey granola.  As I was munching my lunch, along came a spider and sat down beside her me, and frightened delighted me, hooray!

How did I discover that the spider was near?  It was his song!  ....or seismic vibration.  At first, I could not believe my ears!  I was clearly hearing what sounded like a tiny voice singing in low alto.  With my head tilted down toward the leaf litter, I listened ever so intently for confirmation.  And I heard it again!  Actually, I am giving much more credit to the little arachnid's voice than is deserved because his "song", in reality, is more of a grunt.  Imagine a noisy grunting pig, shrunk down to spider size... that's what I heard!

....And then before I knew it, I heard it again coming from a different location!  ...and again and again!  It was in that moment that I realized I was surrounded by spiders!  At any one point, if I allowed my eyes to lose focus and go kinda crossed (in blurry fashion), I could detect movement from at least a dozen singing spiders.

Of course, I was totally fascinated and was determined to get to the bottom of this mystery.  I took as many identification photos as possible, went home, and dove into the field guides.  I discovered that my handsome fellow is very possibly named Schizocosa Ocreata, but you can call him Brush-Legged Wolf Spider.  He is a forest dweller and grows to half-inch in size, which is considered "medium" in the arachnid world.  According to ODNR, he is most commonly found in our state from mid-April until mid-August.  The "singing" is actually a vibration set out amongst the forest floor to attract mates.   The females listen to the songs and are absolutely swept off all eight of their feet!!!  They crawl to the song they like best.... and then, well, you can guess what happens next! 

how can you not love me? ....admit it! you do!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Deer's View

Since moving back home in 2006, I have completely transformed my life.  Actually, it is an ongoing process that never really reaches full completion.  Meditation is an important part of my life and the process. It is a practice that I've adopted as part of my attempt at Deliberate Living. 

Sometimes my meditation involves the complicated notion of sitting and staring.  I do this often actually, but it is most beneficial to my health if I can be outdoors while performing the "sit and stare".   I like to sit on the back porch and just stare out at the woods.  I don't think of anything.  I just sit and stare in a zoned out state with my eyes not focused on anything in particular.  It is wonderful... and essential for me.

Anyway, I was meditating Tuesday morning, when something broke my concentration.  I detected movement.  I heard nothing, but I saw movement down in the woods. I stood up and quietly inched forward until my nose was practically pressed to the screen.  YES!  Indeed there was movement.  Two deer casually meandering through the woods in a section that I call the "wildflower bottoms".  A somewhat flat clearing in a steep valley. 

What a beautiful site!  Such magnificent creatures acting in their natural state -- unafraid and unbothered by humans. I try so hard to appreciate these gifts and never take nature for granted.  I realize that overpopulation is an issue and that deer can cause serious car accidents.  I know that.  I also know that they are a nuissance in the form of a flower-muncher... and they eat the tops off of prized tomato plants.  I know that.

BUT they are so beautiful and elegant and poised.  I love that they are so large and yet have a gentle nature.  They are strictly herbivores and pose no threat to anyone (other than humans!).  Their quick legs are for escaping, not for chasing down prey.  They are beautiful.  I do hope that one never darts in front of my car.  Please dear deer, do not jump in front of my car.

My Nikon was pushed to its limits to try and capture any photos at such a far distance.  I extended my 300mm lens and tried to manually focus to minimize the distraction of trees and branches. I cropped and enhanced the photos, but still the deer are barely visible.   Here is what I managed to get:

After they left,  I decided to walk to the "wildflower bottoms" myself.  I wanted to see Meadowlark Cabin through their eyes..... A Deer's View...

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


There are many reasons why I love nature.  
... it is soothing, restorative, calming, peaceful
..... a lesson in life, purpose, survival, cycles
.........beautiful, artistic, real and true

BUT the reason that always seems to be at forefront ... the reason that comes back to my mind over and over is this:
Nature is for everyone.  It cannot be bought, planned, or scheduled.  It is a serendipitous gift.  There are no real guarantees.  And there are no advantages to being young, old, rich, or poor.  Nature only requires patience, openness, and a willingness to wander (and wonder!). 

Sure, I can research where a certain bird may appear based on habitat, food source, nesting grounds, etc.  BUT there is no guarantee that I will actually get to witness that bird.  Believe me, all birders have at one point gone to look for a certain bird that they were certain to find... only it certainly was NOT there!

Loving nature is truly immersing oneself in the opportunity of the moment and being open enough to realize the gifts that surround us.

Monday morning I went for a walk with binoculars and camera in tote.  On these early morning walks, I have no real plan.  Most of the time, I do not even know exactly where my walk will lead.  I just follow my ears, eyes... and instincts!  I always hope to see something new... and I always do in some form or another.  But I just don't know exactly what the "new thing" will be until it happens.  And sometimes the "new thing" may not seem new to others, but for me it is new because I am looking at it with more experience, knowledge, and openness than the previous time I saw it. 

As I sauntered along Monday morning, through the open field that I refer to as "the moors" (not because it is anything like a moor, but because I love to randomly reference Wuthering Heights!!) , I listened to all of the birds that usually sing on our acres during early (EARLY) spring: eastern bluebirds, northern cardinals, mourning doves, american robins, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, american crows, tufted titmice, carolina chickadees.

But what I did NOT expect was to catch a glimpse of a PAIR of PILEATED WOODPECKERS off in the distance perched high in a sycamore at the edge of the field!  At first, I wasn't sure if I was really seeing pileateds because they are so secretive and I rarely get a good look at them.  I put my binoculars to my eyes to confirm.. and YES, indeed there was a pair of pileateds!

Before I could plan my next move, one of the woodpeckers took off across the open field right over my head!  I quickly grabbed the camera to try to get whatever shot possible.  The camera, still in clumsy autofocus, was doing its best to keep up with me and my rapid-fire shots.  My hands were shaky and my heart was racing!  I live for these moments!!!  I got several shots of the bird before it disappeared into the state park side of our property.  WHEW!  Just when I put the camera down to catch a breath, the second pileated left the tree and took off on the same path as the first!  Once again, I threw the camera up to my eye and began the difficult task of trying to track a fast moving bird on the wing!  What excitement!!  I got several shots!  YES!!!!!

You may be wondering (if you are not a birder) why this woodpecker is such a big deal?  Well besides the fact that it is absolutely gorgeous, it is the largest by far of our woodpeckers.  It is huge, ranging in size from 15 to 19 inches!  It is secretive in nature and seems to know when someone wants to get a good picture of it! ha!  It has a call that is so loud and powerful and primeval that it gives me chills!   ....also, it is the closest thing that we have to the ivory-billed woodpecker (which is believed to be extinct) and every time I see a pileated woodpecker it reminds me of what we have and what we could lose.

 click here if you want to hear the call of the pileated woodpecker

That pair of pileated woodpeckers left me with all of the gifts I mentioned at the beginning of this blog entry.  But here are the tangible gifts they left with me.  While a far cry from "good photos", they are a special reminder of my serendipitous moment.  They aren't good photos, but they are what I saw, real and true:

The series is in chronological order.  The photo after the pine tree shot marks the beginning of the "second bird" photos.