Monday, December 21, 2009

All I Want for Christmas...

Because to (the annual CBC) IS the "something else."

Welcome to my version of the 110th annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). What would Frank Chapman say if he could see how his vision of "counting" birds each Christmas season (instead of shooting the hell out of them in the annual "side hunt") has taken on a life of its own? Yes, I'm sure old Frank would be impressed that the annual "bird census" he helped to start is still going strong and attracting more and more citizen scientists each year. I have been involved since 2006 (four years now) and look forward to this totally odd activity as a part of my Christmas experience. If nothing else, it is a chance to purposely step outdoors into the cold Wisconsin (late-late) fall and breath in the crisp air for the entire day. At best, it is a chance to celebrate all things avian with a few like-minded friends and kindred spirits.

My version always begins with a hearty cup of steaming coffee and a bakery treat while the "strategy" of the day unfolds with those few stalwart souls who have decided to join me. This year's starting off establishment was Cranky Al's Bakery in Wauwatosa, WI. The coffee and baked goods are very tasty and the atmosphere is usually as "cranky" as advertised. This year's CBC participants were; Steve Fronk, Bill and Tammy Bokern and me. Nola and Kay joined the rest of us for a quick cup of beans and then went on to their own errands while the four of us began our official count at Charles Hart Park (around 8:30 AM). The weather was decidedly cold (27 degrees and falling) with a bit of a breeze from the north as we strapped on our binoculars and set off across the walking bridge across the Menomonee River in the heart of "section 20." The CBC is set up in 15 mile "circles" and each of those circles are further subdivided into 1 X 1 mile "squares" depending on the landscape in that single mile. The Milwaukee Circle was coordinated this year by Andrea Szymczak. Interestingly, William Mueller and the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative (WBCI) had out an additional request of the CBC'ers to count the amount of free-ranging cats and to report them as well this year. The participants are to "count" the total amount of each species (they are sure of) recorded in their section, to the best of their ability from midnight to midnight. The "offical" turn in date for all data is February 15, 2010. The WIMI circle our little group participated in had established December 19th for the circle as a whole, so that's the date (day) we counted on. WIMI circle has its "turn-in party" beginning at 4:00 PM at the Schlitz Audubon Center the evening of the count. I turned over our count data at around 4:20 with pride and shared a glass of ginger ale; basking in the afterglow of another successful CBC. Doesn't that sound like FUN!?

Section 20 was more than covered by our group of four with some amazing American Robin sightings along with more than a couple of large raptors. The bare branches of the urban woods made the spotting of birds much easier than in the past months leading up to the count...probably another reason for the CBC's December time frame. We covered the "Big Four" first; Hart, Jacobus, Doyne, and Hawthorn Glen. These areas always seem to produce a wide variety and plentiful count. We spent some additional time driving around the "Highlands" with the intention of picking up some stragglers. Steve had left at around 11:00 AM to do some banking and then noon-time came and the Bokerns needed to leave for their own activities, so I went into Section 16; a lone (counting) wolf. Dineen Park is my favorite area of the "more urban" section 16 which includes Enderis Park (my backyard). The park has a large pond feature that is the summer weather home to large numbers of waterfowl. At this time of year however, there are far more American Crows than Canada Geese, but I did spot one individual who had discovered some open water for a quick dip and drink.

Section 16 does feature two of the largest cemeteries in Milwaukee. You'd think that with all that open land, you'd find all the birds you needed to count, but not so. I have been to these two cemeteries: Lincoln Memorial and Holy Cross each year and find them as bereft of avian activity as can be. Gravely speaking; it's really "dead" in each of them. I did however snap a photo of the greatest "tree-topper" ornament ever; an enormous Red-tailed Hawk. I finished up by doing a slow drive throughout the Enderis neighborhood with the window down. I "listen" for bird activity and when I hear something, I investigate accordingly. It's not exact science, but that's what I've always done by myself. Which leads me to the punchline of this particular entry. I encourage those of you who have not counted, to volunteer NEXT year. Make it a priority on your personal calendars...and no, not just the old "until something else comes up."

Consider making the Christmas Bird Count of 2010 YOUR "something else"'s fun and me....Merry Christmas!

Section 16 sightings:
Canada Goose - 2
Herring Gull - 2
Ring-Billed Gull - 6
Red-Tailed Hawk - 1
Cooper's Hawk - 2
Blue Jay - 2
American Crow - 53
Mourning Dove - 17
American Robin - 1
Downy Woodpecker - 1
Hairy Woodpecker - 1
Black-capped Chickadee - 9
American Goldfinch - 9
House Sparrow - 140
Northern Cardinal - 13
House Finch - 7
Dark-Eyed Junco - 13

Section 20 sightings:
Canada Goose - 155
Mallard - 16
Herring Gull - 7
Great Blue Heron - 1
Ring-billed Gull - 5
Cooper's Hawk - 3
Sharp-shinned Hawk - 2
American Crow - 3
Mourning Dove - 14
American Robin - 79
Downy Woodpecker - 6
White-breasted Nuthatch- 7
Hairy Woodpecker - 1
Red-bellied Woodpeckers - 4
Black-capped Chickadee - 14
American Goldfinch - 12
House Sparrow - 90
Northern cardinal - 10
House Finch - 18
Dark-eyed Junco - 8

Friday, December 11, 2009

Remembering Budgie

While some deaths are "small" in comparison; the feeling of loss is always the same.

It happened in the quiet of the kitchen last evening. Last evening as I was getting ready for bed, my daughter was in the kitchen after I had picked her up from a long evening's work at a local Walgreen's, getting a cup of something hot to drink to relax and unwind before her bedtime. She called upstairs for me to come down to the kitchen. "Dad, Budgie's dead," she told me, "he shuddered and took one last breath, and that was it." I looked into the familiar cage hanging from the metal stand and and sure enough; Budgie was lying still on the fresh bed of corn cob litter. Her eyes were welling up with the tears of loss as I hugged her, telling her, "at least you were with him when it happened...he didn't die alone."

Budgie was a gift to my son Nelson at a time when even having a pet (let alone a bird) was entering a brand new experimental Devereaux-family arena. He had received the bird on his 11th birthday along with the typical bird care giving accoutrement's. Nelson named him "Budgie" according to his genus Budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus) and it seemed to suit him. Nelson tended him as faithfully as any 11 yr-old could (with guidance to assist) until the day he left for college 6 years later. (Nelson, not the bird). At that point, the rest of the family took turns making sure that Budgie was taken care of and had a nice quality of life experience right to the very end. We all had our own "relationship" with this crazy-special animal.

Memories of Budgie include the times we would "allow" him to fly around the house to stretch his wings, avoiding the ceiling fan as he did. Attempts at giving him a bird-bath by setting out a pan of water to splash in were met with disdain. How he would ring his bell, use his abacus-mirror to "count," swing on his hanging perch, sit on your pointed finger and curiously allow you to "kiss" his head with your closed lips, but never allow your hand to get anywhere near him from above. I still maintain that he could say "pretty birdie" in bird-talk, but that remains debatable. Just having him happily squawking and singing will be missed on BOTH ends of a telephone conversation.

Budgie spent his last moments on this earth the past few days; apparently having suffered a stroke or some other brain injury that had incapacitated his ability to properly stand or grip a perching rod. I made some impromptu "ADA/Hospice" modifications and my wife had suggested that his food and water be appropriately transferred into two cage-bottom sitting jar lids. Out of extreme respect for his tenacity over the years, I did a final cleaning and placed a seed starting heat mat under his bottom tray to assist keeping him warm and comfortable in his last days. He waddled, slept, tumbled, and shook for about four days before finally giving up his good fight to remain in our midst. Fortunately we all had an opportunity to make our peace with him; talking, and whispering silent prayers as he laid with his eyes closed, too weak to even pick up his head. This stalwart creature that had once before fought and beat back a respiratory infection was finally over matched and was fading fast.

So in the still quiet of a below-zero December Wisconsin night, I tenderly removed him from his cage-home of over 9 years, wrapped him in a soft paper towel, and placed him into a clear Ziploc bag to be stored in the downstairs freezer for a future memorial "service." Somehow it didn't seem all that dignified for a family pet who shared many a family meal sitting in his cage pecking into his own seed cup nearby the kitchen table to be dropped unceremoniously into the garbage can. Yeah, that didn't seem "right" in the me sentimental.

Damn...I loved that (tough) old bird...thanks for the memories Budgie.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Pecking Order

At times things can get a little Hairy, so keep on your toes and listen UP↑

Thanksgiving 2009 saw this blog author back in his old stomping grounds visiting the in laws. Never wanting to miss an honest to goodness natural opportunity; I made sure I took a few morning hikes around the neighborhood. Not wanting to become a statistic in this year's Gun-Deer hunt, I stayed in the City limits proper, wore my RED Budweiser Dale Earnhart Jr. hat, and kept my fingers crossed as I wandered about; removing the usual white handkerchief hanging from my back pocket, for good measure. (JK about the last part) I was however truly vigilant and wary as I meandered along the railroad tracks and along the highway for traces of blaze orange, just in case. I had just walked down from the railroad bed that I love to walk along attracted to an anomaly of an ancient wire embedded in a large poplar when the loud, brief sound of a whitetail "huff" caused me to freeze in my tracks. I leaned next to the enormous power pole that was nearby, waited and listened. My eyes caught a tiny movement between the trees and leafless brush piles. As I waited, camera in hand for the animal to come into view, a new sound on the highway just ahead startled me. "Errrrrrweeeeeee...THUMP!"

Having grown up in the Northwoods that sound, proximity to the highway and the fact that I was awaiting a whitetail's appearance from the woods told me everything in two seconds: Car VS Deer...a bad match-up. I struggled through the adjoining marsh, getting two soakers for my troubles and emerged from the entanglement onto the gravel shoulder. Up ahead about 50 yards I saw a white Cadillac and a woman standing on the passenger side looking towards the Marathon gas station to the north. I sidled up and asked was she all right. She said that she was fine and that her vehicle had struck the deer's hind leg after it had plowed into another vehicle as she pointed to a forest green Chevy Suburban parked in the Marathon's lot. A shaken looking young man was peering at the both of us about 75 feet away standing next to his passenger side door that looked like it had met with a massive impact. "That deer must be around here because I think I broke it's leg," she offered as she looked through the cattails on the roadside between her car and the Marathon station. "I've seen more than my share of three-legged deer in my yard" she added. I explained my unexpected appearance and concern telling them both that I'd look for the injured animal across the marsh to the south. The woman drove off and the young man headed for the warmth of the station kiosk...he probably needed to process a few things.

I tracked the hoof prints as they had dug into the soft gravel shoulder in its fateful leap onto the tarmac and into the side of the suburban; to the other side of the divided four lane highway. I wandered in amongst the woods and cattails for a time and finally gave up, going on my merry way, but guiltily wondered if my presence in the adjoining woods has spooked the deer to panic-strickenly flee across the busy highway. bad if that was what had truly happened. Hopefully this particular unfortunate (now three-legged) creature knew where the woman's yard was so that it had kindred spirits to hang with.
A large wide swing around the properties that fronted this particular segment of the Pelican River yielded a variety of interesting sights and sounds from submerged Trig's shopping carts to the peck, peck, pecking of a Hairy woodpecker. I stood and watched the Hairy for quite a while as it worked on the bark of a maple tree. These larger "cousins" to the more plentiful "Downy" woodpeckers are efficient excavators. At about 7½ inches long Picoides villosus has a much longer bill as well and is missing the spotting along the undertail that the smaller Downy features. Hairy woodpeckers forage primarily on the trunks or main limbs of trees, where they probe into crevices and scale off bark searching for prey. They drum frequently in spring. Their diet consists of bark-boring and wood-boring beetle larvae in dead and dying trees. They also feed on sap from sapsucker holes, berries, nuts, seeds, and suet. Hairy Woodpeckers form monogamous breeding pairs in late winter, and pairs from previous seasons often re-pair. Both members of the pair excavate nesting and roosting holes in soft or rotten wood, especially in aspens or dead conifers. Although Hairy Woodpeckers spend most of their time in coniferous forests, they prefer to nest in deciduous trees. Both parents incubate the 4 eggs for about 14 days, and both feed the young. The young leave the nest after 28 to 30 days and follow the parents around for some time thereafter. Each pair of Hairy Woodpeckers typically raises one brood each year.

The next stop on this particular "tour" lead me to a section of backwaters that were obviously on some nature group's continual radar. In the trees that rimmed the river's edge were about a dozen Wood duck houses that were in various conditions from beat to hell, to brand new. I was impressed that here along this seemingly lonely stretch of river that humans has actually decided to help out with the provision of handy avian housing. But as I looked up at the condition of some of the older decrepit units, I wondered what it would be like as the neighbor to one of these slum-duck squatters living in wooden squalor. Heck, I guess any duck could choose to move out of it's dive and into one of the new units; making them an instant "slum-duck-millionaire." (yeah, I know...) Industrious Beavers had also decided that there were a few tasty poplars that needed felling and dismemberment near this spot of land...thier tell-tale signs were everywhere.

Back to the tracks...I had only traveled about 300 yards when sweetly familiar sounds caused me to stop. Darting back and forth across the tracks and in and out of the lower brush were Black-capped chickadees. Their call notes and interspersed songs were delightfully pleasing on this cold and snowy morning. I stood watching in the center of the rail-bed at the antics of these tiny birds and quickly realized that there was definite purpose to their seemingly random flitting. A 6" diameter Paper birch tree had apparently rotted and snapped off (or vice-versa) near the tracks edge and the chickadees had discovered that it would make a convenient place to begin building their home for the winter. The minuscule bird (or birds, it was impossible to tell) would land about 24 inches away from the hole they had started, and then take a "turn" at the excavation of the inside. Down would go the chickadee into the hole and reappear with a beakful of saw chips and dust. The bird would fly off a short distance and deposit its tailing into the air, allowing them to cascade earthward before returning to the staging area once more. Fascinating! I must have watched (ahhh, hell-O it's called bird "watching") for about ½ hour before I had pretty much had gotten the gist of this marvelous building activity.

The next day it snowed. It was one of those "clinging" type of crystalline snows that coats each branch and makes them appear as if the whole world were dipped in marshmallows; at least as long as the temperature stayed cold enough. To that end I wandered out very early to get some nice digital images of the spectacle. I began walking again along the train tracks; walking slowly and inhaling the crisp clean air. I made it to the river and ultimately to the enormous Hodag at the Rhinelander visitors center snapping pictures all the way. This particular post-Thanksgiving morning was gloriously quiet and blissfully peaceful. I saw a few more of the "usual" species and was struck by a particularly large covey of Mourning doves that had gathered underneath my mother-in law's deck. Of course they "exploded" into whistling flight as I approached, but it was breathtaking nonetheless.

So perhaps the message of this particular blog (as it so often is) is to keep your eyes and ears open because you just never know what you'll see and hear; but also remember not to spook the deer towards the highway when you encounter them.

Sources: 2005-2008 Seattle Audubon Society
Videos below...

Watch the Hairy Woodpecker work

Chickadee Homebuilding Session

Leave it to Beaver

Deer Crossing - Zzzzooooooom!

Thanks for reading!! - B.Stud

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Birds and Beer (start a hobby this holiday)

Some things take that personal touch to fully enjoy...

I have been home brewing my own beer about as long as I have been an avid birder. Each time I successfully bottle the finished product I feel an immense sense of accomplishment. You may say and ask, "I'm sure anyone can probably brew their own beer Birdstud. What makes home brewing so special for you?" My answer is, "It just is." For some reason the two diverse activities delight me in their own unique ways; variety, unpredictability, and the requirement of a modicum of expertise and yet a pinch of (on the fly) invention. These ingredients make up the top four reasons I gravitate towards any activity.

Bird watching for instance provides a person with all of these by the virtue of - Chance guided by Intuition and Experience. Beer making is exactly like that too. Take a simple recipe and all of the necessary ingredients, carefully combine them and wait for the results. Do that a couple of times and soon you are tinkering and experimenting for just the right end product. Similarly, bird watching allows the novice to have an equal opportunity for success as the veteran might. How many birders have been in the presence of a new-bee bird watcher who scores something really cool when the old-timers totally missed the encounter? Probably all of them at one time or another. The more often you participate in something people, the better you get and the more experience you take to the task next time. Birding is (for me) all about the randomness of the sightings based upon getting myself into a position of potential success. Brewing beer is the same thing. Each require a certain mimimum of "equipment" too...enter the ingenuity of invention.

As anyone knows who ever began a new hobby, there are plenty of businesses out there more than willing to provide you with the tools and doo-dads that are "must-haves" related to that activity. This can be a bit problematic in terms of financing (and some times in the spousal-appeasing explanations of family funding spent aquiring said doo-dads) Here exists a perfect opportunity to "create" more thrifty solutions. Make your own "digi-scope" from a cheap digital camera, a segment of cardboard toilet tissue roll, and an inexpensive spotting scope...(thank you Laura Erickson) or making your own wort chiller from a roll of copper tubing bought at Lowes saving over fifty dollars from the "store-bought" model. This appeals to modern man (or some women) at the basic "I can do that" level and equally demonstrates just how clever you may be to your peers. Totally a "win-win" setting. After all, who doesn't like talking about a found (or created) bargain?

HERE'S more detail on my latest brewing experience if you care to check it out. I wish to thank my new friends at Northern Brewer for their concise basic instructions and to point out the images attached to the document are mine, added to enhance and assist the novice brewing enthusiast.

So folks, this upcoming holiday season, appeal to your crafty, thrifty, adventurous, hobbyist nature and try something unexpected, a true challenge, and good for the soul: Brew beer or start birding. These hobbies (and others like them) will last a lifetime and provide amazing fodder for story upon story told both on the feather trail, or around the campfire holding a cold frosty bottle of pure pride.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Long Shadows of Autumn

When the weather turns colder and the shadows grow longer; it's your truest most reliable "friends" that get you through the long winter ahead.

Sure it's nice to see the fair-weather migrants that fly in and out of our lives when the time is right for them. Their flashy-splashy colors and entertaining antics provide a great distraction from the mundane, but their appearance is only fleeting and un-enduring. Give me an old-fashioned, long-term, (you know what you're getting) "usual" visitor any day. These are the steadfast survivors that stick with you when the going is toughest and when the weather turns foulest; they are always there for you.

In my area of the great Midwest, these true "friends" include; the Mourning dove, House Finch, Northern cardinal, Black-capped chickadee, White-breasted nuthatch, Downy woodpecker, Dark-eyed junco and the (boo...hiss) dreaded House Sparrow. These faithful seed eating, wintertime squatters are the ones to provide the necessary drama that will have to suffice until the days get longer again, and the sun decides to make more than a fleeting daily appearance. They make it "fun" to scoop the seeds and put out the suet each time I do it...they are very appreciative too.

There's a great debate that always springs up each winter about feeding Vs. not. Some folks believe that if you provide feed that it somehow upsets the internal natural balance of birds, causing them to do crazy and "un-natural" things with their eating habits. Maybe they don't fly south to a warmer clime, or perhaps they take extra long showers, watch too much TV, or have unprotected sex. That, my faithful readers is all B.S. What feeding the birds into the fall and (heaven forbid) all winter long does is the following: provides the "feed-er" with great natural theatre, and those lucky birds who eat things (and that's all of them folks) with easy, tasty, and nutritious food. So, it's a "good" thing to do...keep it up!

So, I went again to my new favorite area of the BIG City of Milwaukee; Havenwoods. Things are changing there, just like the season. I saw my first actual coyote on one of the zillion paths that crisscross the State forest land. That was extremely cool. I missed the photo op while I was staring, so you'll just have to believe me. The grasses are brown and the trees mostly leafless, but there are plenty of interesting things left to discover if you pay attention. The ponds are low, but the muskrats are still happy enough. The Whitetail deer are also running the grounds with a grin knowing that they cannot be hunted on the park lands. Trees that contain dangling seeds and berries are attracting plenty of fall and winter avian friends which are planning to stay a while. Milk weed, thistle and Compass plants offer a variety of tasty tidbits for those birds that are just fine with the extended period of white that is yet to cover the landscape. The views from the rolling hills are more unobstructed than they'll ever appear in the summer, offering another perspective of the vastness of the Havenwoods area. In other words, plan to re-visit those areas you frequent in the "nicer" weather, to take full advantage of the change of seasons.

So, my "friendly" advice is to take time to a stroll outdoors this fall and visit with some of your area's true "friends." Plus, make sure you put out an extra scoop of your seeds as a welcome (back) gift...they'll thank you for it by "being there" for you.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Break Out the Seeds Once Again!

(or) Saving starfish...kinda'

Fall is the perfect time to replenish your stores of wild bird feed (seed). Hopefully like me, you have your seed containers outdoors so that wild animals do not treat your home as their personal Holisquirrel Inn, Hilton Mouseden Inn, or (heaven forbid!) Hyatt Ratgency. My in laws have lost a perfectly good screen door screen as a result of an opportunistic vermin who caught the scent of sunflower seeds quite near that door...(sorry bad.) In my experience, I have found that 30 gallon metal "garbage cans" make the best critter-proof containers for seed, if you can find them. I have two. One for run of the mill (satisfies nearly everybird) black oil sunflower seeds and one for the "rest." The rest can vary. I usually have white millet for the ground feeders like White-crowned and White-throated sparrows, juncos, and other sparrow-like cousins, Niger thistle for the perching finches like the American Gold, house and siskins, and a corn mixed blend for the corvids and Mourning doves which are the staples of my particular "hood" over the fall and winter months.

The size and shape of the metal cans lends itself well to dropping the entire 40-50 lb. sack of seeds directly into them. Place on their metal covers and I am GTG. Make sure you have a good plastic scoop or two that is dedicated to the seed cans, as it makes your like far less miserable in the dead of winter. Pick up your suet cakes now too. I always salivate when I see them at less than 90 cents each, picking up close to a dozen. One time I found the Garfield's blend on a close-out at Menard's for 48 cents each! I thought I had died and went to suet heaven. What to do with the suet when they are not outside luring in the local Downy woodpeckers? I put mine in the freezer. Two excellent reasons for this are; they keep longer, and they are easier to handle at any time of the year me.

Birds are FUELING UP at this time of year to make their final push to migration grounds and can use some easy quick food. You can help by doing your part...enjoying their visits and keeping seed available. Will all the birds die if you don't? Nope, but some might. It's kinda' like that story of the old guy who was flipping beached starfish one at a time along the beach...another guy saw him doing it and asked, "why are you doing that, there must be a million of you think it makes a difference?" The old man picked up another starfish from the drying sand and threw it back into the ocean saying, "it made a difference to THAT one, didn't it?"

So, in summary: Buy your metal cans. Buy your seed and suet. Store your seed outside. Store your suet inside (the freezer). Keep your feeders clean. Keep your feeders full.

PS: if you live in the Midwest: Time to plug in your heated birdbaths too!

Keep on watching and enjoying our fine feathered friends all this fall and into the winter.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Mosquito Hill Nature Center

Huh...and I never saw a single one...

Two miles east of New London, WI off County Hwy S lies the Mosquito Hill Nature Center. I used to see the signs from the old route that Hwy 45 took around New London many years ago. Frankly, I had all but forgotten about it. The day after the Blue Jay reunion, I was driving homeward, taking my time on a nice Green Bay Packerless Sunday, when while looking for what I thought was called something like the Kalwitz Marsh along the Wolf River, I came upon the signs once again. I drove the short distance to the nature center and was instantly rewarded by a splendid view of fall colors on the adjacent hillside next to the parking lot. I strapped on the birding gear and headed towards the buildings just off the lot when a series of signs caught my eye. One in particular; the largest, said that this area not only had trails, but an honest to goodness "birding" trail. I was instantly intrigued and stoked.

Doubling back after reading the large sign, I cherry-picked several birding related brochures from a handy weather-resistant informative smorgasbord of leaflets, maps, newsletters and cards. I was impressed with the ability to gather so much information about this new place, without needing to go into a building to ask questions; forget the fact that it was a Sunday and no one would likely be stationed here anyway. The Lexan-protected birding trail map I studied seemed to indicate that the birding trail I sought was clearly marked with large silhouettes of a Northern cardinal posted periodically along the designated trail. Easy, I thought; just watch the birdie and you can't miss. Except it wasn't that easy after all. The trail did however provide nifty interpretive signage about actual birds that could be seen along the route, but reading them would have been a tiny bit easier had they not been at munchkin height. So, no large east to follow cardinals on posts, and low signage...other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

The area around the "hill" was alive with color. The burnt oranges and brownish reds of the Sugar maples, lemon yellows of the poplars, and the scarlet Sumac leaves mixed with the dark of the evergreens lifted the spirits on this cold and breezy afternoon. The bucolic twists of the Wolf River with its shimmering lazy flowing water, served as icing on this cake of stunning natural beauty. I paused on the ingeniously self-adjusting wooden dock like structures that hung into the stream way to watch both an Eastern Phoebe and Swainson's Thrush, while the leaf litter virtually pop-corned with the hoppings of barely visible Tree sparrows. I was half expecting that at each sign along the way that described yet another bird that could be seen on Mosquito Hill; a perfectly placed representative (matching) species would be plainly on display for all to check off their handy list. No such luck. I guess someone must have seen something similar at one time in the past in that clearing, or near that pine and decided the corresponding sign should be pounded into the ground right there. That was okay by me I decided, and set off deep into the woods to see just how steep the "hill" actually was.

Yellow-rumped warblers and Golden-crowned kinglets were by far the most prolific species on the hillside that day. The woods was ringing with their buzzing and chirping sounds, as each one seemed to try and be recognized individually. Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, chickadees and nuthatches also made their presence known as they flitted in and out of the high branches. A lone Eastern Bluebird sat on one of the many houses that dotted the clearings, holding onto the last rays of warming sunshine. No other humans had ventured out to my section of the 430 acre parcel. Jack-o-lanterns lined the pathways, looking as if the night before they had been alight in spooky splendor for some sort of celebration of the season. Only once as I neared the amazing 1500 square foot Butterfly house, did I see a small family unit out for a walk. The butterflies already all put away somewhere for the fall, would have nearly frozen in the 38 degree air. The shadows began to get longer and longer so I wound my way back towards the parking lot. I figured that the interpretive center must have been open, as the hours on the brochure said as much, but I did not venture in. Instead, I had spent the past two lovely hours walking the grounds, looking for birds in this wonderful hidden oasis before finally climbing back into the WPT heading once more for Milwaukee and the real world. mosquitoes today.

Don't you just love days like that?

PS: I never did find that ol' marsh...hmmmpf...maybe next time.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Quest for 30-year Blue Jays

Blue Jays come in all shapes, sizes (and personalities)...really.

What we already know: Cyancitta Cristata, a passerine of the family Corvidae is a beautiful blue creature which bears the burden of an undeservedly sordid reputation of meanness and aggression...I say, Blue Jays just know what they want, when they want it. Furthermore, Blue Jays are noisy...and that is just a fact, but so are many interesting animals. Blue Jays are resident from east of the Rockies, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Blue Jays have a crown of feathers on the top of their heads called a crest that can be raised or lowered according to their moods. Plenty of fantastic websites, dozens of expertly authored books, and a multitude of scientific papers, contain volumes of facts and figures regarding the Blue Jay, so I'll not repeat and recycle any longer, other than to share a few more Blue Jay curiosities.

Interestingly, according to

  • "The Blue Jay's coloration is not derived by pigments, but is a result of internal light refraction due to the internal structure of the feathers; if a Blue Jay feather is crushed, the blue disappears as the structure is destroyed."
  • They will sometimes prey on eggs and nestlings of other birds."
  • "Captive Jays have been observed using strips of paper as 'tools' to rake in bits of food from outside their cages."
  • A group of jays has many collective nouns including a 'band,' 'cast,' 'party,' and a 'scold' of Jays.
Let me now address this last bullet point as I continue...

Recently, I set out on a northward quest to rediscover a "party" of Jays. Typically I would begin any search for them in mixed woodlands, evergreens, or city parks. This particular time I would begin in the small city I had last encountered many of them; Three lakes, WI. I drove north along Hwy. 45 on a blustery cool Saturday morning in the trusty WPT. The many miles I had to travel went along quickly as the changing scenery outside the truck window was stunningly captivating. Oceans of golden brown corn stalks and seas of flowing green grass set off the foreground as sugar maples, oaks, birch and poplar leaves blazed with early fall color on the hillsides. Orange pumpkins and red cranberries dotted the fields and bogs. Even the hundreds of mammoth white wind generators stood in stilled awe of the splendor surrounding their bases. (either that or the power company had 85 percent of the brakes applied for whatever mystifying reason. You know...I really need to blog about that phenomenon someday...all those wind mills standing there and so very few turning...)

As I entered the city limits of a place I had not been for nearly 30 years, I felt like a true tourist. Businesses that I remembered from long ago seemed to have been frozen in a time loop. Sure there were a few new ones here and there, but the vast majority were the ones I frequented as a mere teenager. Other icons of this special place like the local branch of the Dairy Queen, Boehm's Inc., the Black Forest Pub and Grille and the Oneida Village Inn (O.V.) stood resolute in their brick and mortar, welcoming me as I drove along Superior Street. These last two were the kind of rare establishments that actually trusted humans...enough to allow them to start a tab and pay later. Powdered sugar snow covered the shaded areas of the ground from the wintry weather disturbance of the previous night. Stopping briefly in the park where the Cy Williams memorial sign is located, I looked for Jays. Seeing none there, I decided to drive to the end of the block where Hwy 45 intersects with County A. Large sandwich-style sign boards stood proclaiming that today was Pumpkin Fest in town. Again parking the WPT in the lot next to the Winery, I took a quick peek around to see if there were any familiar Jays nearby. Many individuals were milling around the interior of the factory and outlet store, taste-testing and sampling from one end to the other. The cherry pink faces on those assembled told me that a few nips of the grape were responsible for the smiles and jocularity within...however...still no Jays.

I motored back to the O.V. and checked into my room. I carried my few pieces of luggage down the ancient but clean brown low-pile carpeting to my room. A king-sized bed, smallish wooden table with two black faux leather chairs, 70s harvest gold bathroom ensemble complete with a genuine oak toilet seat, and a large Sylvania TV set that looked as if it had toppled off the low dresser a time or two, were all mine for the next 22 hours. I was glad I had requested a "no-smoking room" as the rest of the quaint and affordable premises reeked of the habits of the native northwoods masses. Yes folks, if you ever wondered (from your ashtrayless, foul air banned, looked unkindly upon, urban-enlightened perspectives) where all the cigarette smokers truly are; wonder no further. I found them, and I can honestly say they have all decided not to quit come hell or high taxes.

Don't you just love it when the bathroom exhaust fan actually works? I mean it turns on with a separate switch, moves air as intended keeping the mirror from fogging and (most importantly) whirs along like a playing card in your third grade bicycle spokes, covering any possible noise you might make when using the W.C...that kind of "works?" Yeah, I thought too. Innkeepers of America, take notice and emulate the wonderfulness of a simple small town motel which got it right for a change! Ahem...back to my search for Blue Jays. It wasn't until 2:00 PM when I had my first sighting. This particular Jay was very friendly when I found her. Yes, I knew she was a "her" because I recognized the familiar markings; long blond hair, curves and a higher voice than mine. She and I exchanged pleasantries and decided to tour the Pumpkin Fest and surrounding area together, as she too was looking for Jays. She told me that she was expecting to see a few more around 4:00 PM so in the time being, the two of us entered the local school to reminisce and look for more Blue Jays. Funny how the school was all about Jays. Blue Jay this and Blue Jay the gym, cafeteria, and hallways. Jay memorabilia, Jay paintings, and Jay trophies filled the casements that lined the hallways. We had struck pay dirt. I bought a Blue Jay long sleeve shirt with a great big grin on my face. Yes, this was Blue Jay heaven indeed.

The rest of the Blue Jays arrived between 4 and 6 until the entire "cast" had been assembled. Although their appearance was as varied as their clothing choices, they all had one thing in common; 1979. Some had remained as monogamous as their namesakes. Others had migrated from one mate to another. A few spoke of enjoying the "empty nest" time of their lives, while one was only beginning her time as mommy. Some had not made the journey and skipped the chance to flock together for various reasons known only to them, but those that did enjoyed their reunion. They ate and drank together, (at one point I looked over at one Jay whom I swear appeared to be using a scrap of paper as a tool to get to some food just outside his reach) sang songs and communicated raucously until the wee hours of the next morning. I was struck by the tales told with vivid clarity in which I had somehow played a key role; tales of gratitude for assistance offered and advice given. I realized how a person never truly knows what impact they may have had on anothers life unless those contributions are someday shared. Poignant moments and important interactions passing by us in a blur. This particular gathering of Jays was no different. Birds of a feather...memories of the pecking order we all had naturally assumed, were recollected by those who paid attention at the time. News of those who had fallen from our mutual sky was relayed to each Jay in somber tones, and happiness celebrated and equally triumphed with the pride that only parents can exude. 30-year Blue Jays singing the praises of their offspring were mixed with questions wondered aloud over certain missing friends. In the end this eclectic scold of Jays; large and small, hairy and bald, male and female were what I had come to celebrate. These were in fact the very individuals who helped shape me as a fledgling, and I them. My beginning and theirs. What a perfectly wonderful time.

Before we all knew it, the long slow reverse-migration was underway. For the clock of years only runs forward, and we all had our own habitats to return to.

Congratulations fellow 1979 Three Lakes Blue Jays!
Here's to another 30 wonderful years...I love you all.