Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sciurus Carolinensis Electrificosis and the Mallard

I thought I was quacking up...

Are you familiar with that time of the early morning when sleep is slowly slipping away, the light is slowly changing against the closed blinds but you remain lying there enjoying the warmth of the sheets, refusing to surrender to the whisper of reality telling you to arise and face your day? I was in such a place of contentment one Monday morning when I heard the sound of quacking, just outside our lower corner apartment. Now the sound of quacking wouldn’t normally be a sound that would attract much attention, as ducks are universally spread throughout the globe in areas known to have fresh water available and are generally quite commonplace. This particular quacking, given its proximity to a heavily traveled 4-lane thoroughfare and the complete absence of any water source piqued my curiosity. I smiled as I lay there listening to each carefully regulated quack, and dreamed that I was once again back in my beloved Northwoods, when suddenly there was a FLASH that projected against the corner window, instantly stopping the anticipated next quack and killing the power to the digital alarm clock.

Now wide awake, I jumped to my feet, pulled on a pair of sweatpants and a pair of tennis shoes as I dashed to the apartment door. The exterior door from the building’s hallway to the outside was just around the corner from my apartment, so I pushed outward on the aluminum bar and stepped out. Looking for a (now-silenced) quacker, I scanned the small grassy side lot and concrete walkway that led from the side street. No duck could be found. I glanced up at the top of the nearby power pole transformer and saw a small trailing wisp of smoke and a disconnected fuse hanging like a broken arm. My eyes moved down the pole towards the ground below when I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the exterior door had opened, and a figure had emerged. Though I didn’t know her name, I recognized her as one of the two women living in the corner apartment across the hallway from me. I had seen her and her “partner” on many occasions as they came and went. I asked her if she had also heard the quacking or the flash. She acknowledged that she had seen the flash and her power was also out. I explained that I suspected to find that an avian wader was our culprit, but had yet to locate the victim.

I fixed my attention back to the power pole and saw a brief movement in the leaf litter from the previous fall. Approaching cautiously, looking at the twisting form on the ground my initial thought was it was much too small for a duck. Recognition dawned on me as I bent over the gray and furry form that lay scrambling and smoking at my feet, a squirrel! Its tail looked like a hairless rope; its four feet had exploded at their last joints and remained attached by mere smoking ligaments, its ears showed signs of blood and it was pissed! My thoughts drifted to finding a club when the tree-hugging neighbor, who had now joined me in my visual triage screeched, “We’ve Got to Save It!” “Ahhh, save it?” I asked incredulously. “Yes, it’s injured and it needs help, so we’ve got to catch it!” she breathlessly continued. Now, I have successfully handled my share of woodsy creatures in the past, so the thought that an injured squirrel would not wish to be “saved” never entered my head. I reached forward to grab the squiggling writhing rodent assuming that it would appreciate my quick response to its plight as I placed it in the loving care of my neighbor. Wrong! As my hands closed over its slim body, it twisted its head around and BIT me.

Now I was pissed but only slightly wiser as I threw the beast to the ground, bringing my bleeding hand to my eyes for a quick inspection of the damage. “Damn it!” I exclaimed as I looked to my intrepid partner for an explanation she was unequipped to answer. “Are you sure about this “rescue” thing?” I implored while incredulously watching the quadriplegic repeatedly leap from the ground up to a nearby tree trunk, finding no purchase for escape. Seeing her resolve and confusion at my inability to capture a poor, injured defenseless mammal, I turned and walked to my car parked nearby in the lot, muttering, “I need gloves.” Hand protection in place, I searched the area that I had pitched “Rocky” to mount a different strategy. Movement in the nearby lilac bush drew my attention so I moved to intercept. I wish that I had thought to put on a tee-shirt as sharp sticks scratched my sides and chest while I parted the woodwork to lean in for another attempt at a merciful intervention. This time the wriggling and worming wee-titan of the forest spun and sunk its incisors deep into my gloved hands again and again, finally eliciting enough release to leap from my hands to the roadway and across. It scrambled like a fuel-injected tortoise on stumps to the other side as I stood there in stunned admiration of its tenacity. Never having been bested by any small creature before, I was now determined to finish the job. Running across the side street, my gloved hands outstretched, I plunged into yet another shrubbery. This time, ignoring the chewing, pinching twisting “victim” I crossed the street victoriously imploring for a box in which to place the squirrel.

The entire comedy had unfolded in the span of less than 5-minutes. Squirrel safely (I gave a damn if it was “safely”) in the neighbor’s cardboard box and out of my sight, I reentered my apartment to apply first aide to my throbbing hand. Greeted by my wife, I recounted a thumbnail sketch of the previous few minutes. She burst my triumphant bubble with a question; “Could that squirrel have had rabies?” Crap, I hadn’t thought of that in the heat of the capture. I cleaned and dressed my hand with a nagging worry in my gut. I promised to call a doctor’s office with her question as soon as I got to work, kissed her and off I went armed with the number for the clinic. Later, dialing the number with trepidation, I silently rehearsed the question and potential answer, wondering what the series of shots to my stomach would feel like. A nurse answered my call and sat listening patiently as I recounted the sins of my stupidity ending with the question I dreaded. Several moments went by as I strained to hear if she had registered the horror I had relayed to her through the telephone. The sound of stifled laughter came through the earpiece as she excused herself and her emotional outburst. Intense relief flooded my soul as she told me not to worry about squirrels and rabies, but to be extra careful of infection. “INFECTION!” I scoff at thee infection, for I have stared potential rabies in the face and it blinked.

Later that afternoon, with the results of my good fortune retold to my fretting wife, I enquired as to the squirrel’s condition at the loving hands of the local animal shelter. She grinned and said, “Oh, they put it to sleep.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Which Feeder for You? Thistle Do Just Fine, Thank You.

Experience is often the best teacher. Sit down class and take some notes...

A few years ago I was introduced to a new style of feeder for finches. I had tried the fancy plastic tubes, wire cages, and blocks of hardened seed to entice these beautiful golden and black ornaments of the trees, down to my yard for a bite to eat. I had spent tens of dollars experimenting with variations, placement, new seed, etc. with little to no success. Enter; the nylon "sock."

I was drawn to the simple solution while patronizing the Havegard Outlet store outside of Sturgeon Bay, WI as I looked at a photo of a curious white bag on the wall behind the cash register, positively decorated with birds. $ 3.99 later, I walked out with my new feeder in the palm of my hand, wondering if I would suffer buyer's remorse. Fast forward a week later, feeder filled with fresh Nyjer thistle seed, the sock did not disappoint. It was if the thing had a magnet in it and goldfinches had suddenly become ferrously attracted. I was astounded and pleased. I needed MORE of these wonderful little devices at once!

Unfortunately, a 2-hour car ride was not in the cards, so I did the next best thing; I shopped locally for more socks. What I found was encouraging and decoratively pleasing as well. The socks I found even had decoys painted on them! - What could be better? I purchased one of these and excitedly filled and hung the new birdy lure with anticipation. What I discovered soon after was that my new "prize" just did not have the same effect on the finches. In fact, they snubbed it and it's colorful drawing of a cousin or sibling, by ignoring it altogether. Hmmm? What was this?! Were they offended by the crude representation of their proud species? Was the whole idea being spurned due to a technical coloration faux pas? Whatever the reason, I was dejected and took the thing down ASAP vowing never to attempt to fool mother nature again. What I did not realize until an "AH-HAH" moment a year later, was that it had nothing to do with the painting, color, image, at all. What the big problem actually was, had to do with the size of the openings in the weave of the fabric. The seed simply could not be extracted by the birds! Who knew? Sure, a squirrel could rip through the fabric and obtain all the seed it wanted rendering the bag useless, but a tiny bird?

So, take (learn) it from larger weave socks and enjoy your finches!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Speak Softly and Carry a "Walking" Stick?

If you are quiet and stand still long enough to listen, you may even notice a few extra special things.

Havenwoods State Forest is located on the north side of the big city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It's 237 acres of grasslands, forests, and wetlands are "open" 6 AM to 8 PM to all visitors looking to escape from the rat race that is the largest urban city in Wisconsin. I personally discovered its vast avian diversity in 2007, during an afternoon, post workday reconnoiter. Deciding that it would become one of my favorite local haunts, I have visited many more times since, with my favorites on lazy Saturday mornings.

My latest sojourn had me suited up in my usual geeky birding garb and on the traffic bond gravel pathway, at 8:30 AM. Bushnells firmly strapped crisscross style, I inhaled deeply, pulling in the State Forest air. I wondered how many other fellow Milwaukeans knew of this special place. In the distance, a sole figure dressed in a gray tee shirt was laboring towards me. Continuing southward, scanning the shorter vegetation on the sides of the path, I noticed small birds flying in and out of the greenery. American Goldfinches by the dozens darted to and fro, males flashing their characteristic bright yellow and black color while their duller "better halves" did their best not to be outclassed.

The jogger was close enough now to read the writing on his chest. "ARMY" was plainly visible in large black letters as the crew cut coiffured man who wore it, passed by with a gracious, "Good Morning." This impressed me and I responded with my own greeting. I recalled that the Army's 84th Reserve base was nestled just to the south and against the land I was currently birding. Earlier in the spring as the unit readied themselves for a 4th of July appearance, I had heard a pretty fair rendition of the famous Sousa "Washington Post March" emanating from the parade grounds, as I searched for Eastern Meadowlarks. Deciding that there is nothing like hearing a good march while walking through a forest, my chest swelled with good old American pride. Now, seeing this guy and the 10 other committed individuals that trailed along behind him, revived that emotion once again. I was proud and glad that there were people who were willing to sacrifice their all for the rest of us.

Trees filled with Cedar Waxwings offered an opportunity to watch some serious bug-catching action as I stood on the edge of a field. Off in the distance, the clatter of a Belted Kingfisher sitting on a small rusty signpost on the edge of one of the water features, caught my eye. A juvenile Pied-billed Grebe floated and dove deep after some underwater breakfast. Standing still and silent near the 1911 concrete train bridge, looking at a young family of Indigo Buntings in a shrub, I felt something on my leg. I don't startle easily, and I'm glad I didn't reflexively swat the nuisance. I looked down at my hitchhiker friend and saw it was a walking stick insect. I hadn't seen one for many years and smiled at the tenacity of this one, as it climbed and climbed upward. Placing it gently back among the detritus it was expertly mimicking, I walked onward noticing the many native Compass Plants and purple cone flowers. Gazillions of grasshoppers and small black crickets sitting on the gravel flew like popcorn, parting my wake for the safety of the tall grass, while puffy clouds drifted overhead like wads of mozzarella floating in a bowl of french onion soup.

I smiled, counted my blessings and went on looking for birds.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Finding your "Center" in Life

Sometimes Life gets in the way of actual "living..."

As the days now get shorter and the sun angles change to lengthen out late afternoon shadows, my thoughts turn to the one "natural" thing in my life that remains unchanged yet unpredictable...Birds. Yes, Birds folks. Birds do things their way, on their time schedule, showing up (or not) when and where they choose, and for periods of time known only to them. Sure, we humans "think" we have things mostly figured out, but I for one hope we're wrong. I want to creep silently through the underbrush or along a line of trees in an open field never really knowing what I will see. That makes it special, new, different, each time I strap on the Bushnells. Do I have kind-of an idea what I may see where and when...sure, but the looking is the thing. "My" thing anyway.

At the end of my "supervisory day" with many individuals wanting to talk to me, ask me questions, garner opinions, ask permission, tap my computer skills, you name it, having the opportunity to stop for a peek at what's hiding in the trees is extremely cathartic. In a job where the same things are expected each month, each quarter, each year, and the cycle drudgingly repeats itself, isn't it nice that one activity remains where chance is everything, and I discovered it for myself? Yes, I say, YES! You see to me it's one of those things where the process of observing is as rewarding as the finding. Fishing and hunting are like that for many. Often individuals who consider themselves "sportsmen and women" are lumped together with those overzealous individuals in their ranks who take a different approach, one of conquering and capture, while their true interest lies in the mere experience, and not of the ultimate trophy.

As I approach 50 years of age and look out of these "middle-aged" (assuming of course, I'll be 100 when I die) eyes at the clamor around me, finding my "center" has been difficult. Those of you reading this who have been through it can relate, while those much under the 1/2 century mark will most likely wonder why the introverted speculation is necessary. I understand the quizzical look on your face as I too thought I had it all together, but trust me, and file this bit of advice in your sock drawer for someday; find your centering place, and "live" there, as the rooms are always big enough, the temperature is always just right, and the food is awesome. Don't let anyone or any "thing" spoil it for you, because if you are fortunate enough to discover it, you are going to be OK.

Yeah, OK is good enough sometimes...

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Birds of Lake Park

Milwaukee has a LOT to offer Birdwatchers:

One of Milwaukee’s best places to look for (watch) birds has got to be in Lake Park on Milwaukee’s lake front. A Milwaukee County park, it features diverse land features, plants, trees, and terrain. The park itself has become a gathering place for people of all interests; joggers, bicyclists, Frisbee golf enthusiasts, soccer, rugby, mothers with small children who play together on the equipment and in the sandbox, hikers, dog walkers, and of course; birders. With regularly scheduled “Warbler Walks” in the spring and fall of each year, local bird-watcher Paul Hunter and his peers know the lay of the land by heart and have each path, walk and geographic separation named and surveyed to accompany their archived detailed species counts. (Visit Paul’s Page for more information.)

I have personally been to the park at least 8 times and have come away with new birds for my lifelist almost each time. I have been there on the cold windy days, the cool rainy days, the sunny glorious ones too and am always glad I came. The trees are always filled with birds, and the feeders in the park are consistently, lovingly filled by the Friends of Lake Park. I will say I am a bit chagrined by the “dog walkers” of the park who have decided that the wonderful fenced-in tennis courts are a good place to allow fido to run leash-less and free upon. (I even took a video HERE if you wish to be similarly appalled.)

...But then again I digress...If you can look the other way and not pay any attention to the distraction of lawbreaking going on around you, (and I know you can) look to the trees for your reward. There are many trails to explore and discover. The upper pathways offer the best views of the varied species available. The lower ones, while bucolic, are a bit too densely packed with vegetation to afford a good view of the animal life. Red-headed and Red-bellied Woodpeckers were the stars of the day this sunny warm August 31st morning. Their chittering and squawking could be heard all over the ravine as the different family units gathered. The cool breeze from Lake Michigan wafted through the openings in the trees bringing a fresh odor of all things watery. Harley Davidson's 105th anniversary party was winding down it's Labor Day weekend celebration but the "potato-potato-potato" sound of the bikes could still be heard rising above the bluff. Birds seen this day were; the aforementioned woodpeckers, Chickadees, Cedar Waxwings, American Robins, White-breasted Nuthatches, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Canada Geese, House Sparrows, American Goldfinches, and Yellow-shafted Northern Flickers. The hour spent walking along the pathways was serene and relaxing and will soon be repeated. I suggest you wend your way there for a visit as soon as you are able. The warblers are coming soon and are not to be missed!