Thursday, April 30, 2009

Spring Break in the Panhandle (part one)

There’s nothing more satisfyingly recharging for a northerner, than to reverse migrate in the early spring. Leaving the frozen tundra of the upper Midwest for the milder, sunnier climes of the south, if even for a week, can drive out the long winter chill from your body faster than a frozen penguin on a tanning bed. That’s why, with extreme anticipation, the family and I set out for Panama City just ahead of Easter 2009. We’re campers by nature (and fiscal leaning) so the days of preparation specific to making that happen, are akin to readying the famed Lewis and Clark expedition. In the “old days” BK (before kids) my wife and I could throw a few things in a common suitcase, pack the nylon tent and chairs into the trunk, making sure to bring along a good novel or two, and off we would trundle. Not anymore. “Dad, can the power inverter handle both the DVD player AND the X-Box 360?” and “I know I have a lot of clothes and shoes, but that’s OK, there may be some cute boys…” are common questions and statements from today’s teen-travelers. Gone are the simpler days of butterfly nets and Golden books that used to entertain them for countless hours. Here now are electronic everythings, designed to fill every waking (and sleeping with your IPod earbuds in) hour from sun-up to sun-down. But it could be much worse I guess; they could have declined to go along at all. So I count my blessings as I peek under the Honda Odyssey’s undercarriage, brow furrowing, trying to gauge the narrowing distance to the road surface. Our ultimate destination lay 1100 miles ahead but the tank was full of $ 2.05/gal gas (instead of last spring’s $3.59). The oil and filter were both freshly changed; the washer fluid reservoir filled, ample snacks and hot coffee for the passengers gave every indication that we were READY. Just one more trip back to the locked house as we attempt to leave the driveway, one more quick potty stop before we turn determinedly southward, gleefully leaving Milwaukee in the rearview mirror.

“Remember those days when driving around Chicago were as tedious as giving birth to a piano bench?” I remarked to my sleeping wife. “God bless the inventors of IPASS open road tolling,” I muse as the van breezes along the freeway bypass underneath the overhead scanners. Debit, debit, debit my butt off, you State of Illinois you; at least I don’t have to stop in your flat, Bear-loving, excuse of a state…ahem,…sorry.

The overnight at the Columbus, Indiana Days Inn was a welcome respite after pounding down the highway in the darkness. Those flip-over, make-em’ yourself, Belgian waffles at the complimentary breakfast bar make a great eye-opener too. Next stop would be Pelham, Alabama and the Oak Mountain State Park some 450 miles down the road. We finally arrived at around 6 PM after some pretty scary moments dodging tornadoes in Tennessee and big hail in Kentucky. I had just completed the ringmaster duties (sans red suit and cane) related to the circus of Jayco camper set-up, when I noticed the Purple Martin gourd colony in the turn-around near the lake. The sun was just starting to think about evening retirement so the birds had mostly taken their places in the nest openings. The greater Milwaukee area has a consortium of birding enthusiasts who are actively working towards increasing the likelihood that martins will find the area to their liking. HERE is a link to their Blog, outlining their commendable efforts. A curious southern drawl caught my ear and I turned my head towards the sound. Waddling slowly from a canvas compound set back in the woods ahead of me, ambled an enormous, t-shirt-bellied, NASCAR hat sporting, 100% pure, Alabaman specimen. He was yelling back over at his shoulder to a sleight, mouse brown-haired waif of a woman in sandals, that “you ain’t gonna’ touch my beer, you know? I’ll be back and I wanna’ see it all still there!” A White-throated Sparrow began singing its warbled song as the man approached a beat-to-death, rust brown Chevy Cavalier and pried open the driver’s door. I know my mouth was hanging slightly open as I witnessed the man turn his body, massive butt first into the now open car door, and proceed to wiggle back and forth as he levered his oil-stained, jeans-covered fanny into the void. “Now that’s something you don’t see everyday.” I thought as I couldn’t tear my eyes from the unbelievable scene. Like a front-end loader dumping a boulder into a baby buggy, the man eventually settled his largess onto the godforsaken front seat of the Chevy, then started working on swinging his tree-stump legs around into the driver’s well. I had seen enough of the logistical nightmare for one day, so I backed away from the slow-motion train wreck, to look for more birds.

The next day, some early morning birding yielded some nice sightings. The list of 30 compiled while there, is as follows: Great-crested Flycatcher, Ovenbird, White-throated Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Hairy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Eastern Towhee, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Whip-poor-will, American Crow, Tufted Titmouse, Brown Thrasher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Purple Martin, Chimney Swift, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, Eastern Bluebird, Blue Jay, Canada Goose, Cedar Waxwing, Red-eyed Vireo, Red-headed Woodpecker, and Brown-headed Cowbird. After we ate, we all packed up the site and headed for the highway once more.

You know how it is when you are on your way “to” your destination VS coming back “from” it? Well, the next 6 hours in the car flew by as the temperatures rose outside according to the proximity to the Gulf of Mexico. Sorties of Brown Pelicans could be seen soaring high in the sky from out of the car windows, as the swaying pine tree boughs slowly gave way to the bristling palm fronds. Paradise at last, was in reach. The cities of Panama City and Panama City Beach are located along the gulf between Pensacola on the west and Tallahassee on the east.

NOTE: Stay tuned to this blog for the second installment of Spring Break in the Panhandle

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Spring Stimulus Package

Some stimuli are free and naturally occurring.

Let’s talk stimulating! Nesting time is just around the corner and in some areas, birds have already begun to do what comes naturally and begin. Most birds are not particularly fussy as to exactly where their incubation stations are located, as long as a few key features are present prior to site selection. Turdus Americanus (American Robin) fancies a variety of habitat including; Cities, villages, farmlands, gardens, and open woods. She will build her nest in shrub, tree fork, and horizontal branch or on almost any substantial ledge, principally on a house or outbuilding such as a garage, but rarely on the ground. How many of us can boast about the nest built over the outdoor front light fixture, causing us to cover our head each time we exit the house for fear of an agitated “mother” guarding her chicks. Birds will build their nests from grasses, twigs, sticks, mud and bits of string, plastic bags, and candy wrappers. You can even put colorful scraps of your leftover yarn and floss out in an empty onion bag for birds to find and utilize. Imagine the sight of a bird dwelling high in a tree festooned with brightly colored bits of your handi-crafts.

Birds can also be economical in their recycling techniques. For instance the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher will tear up a completed or partially completed nest and reuse the material to build another nest nearby. Most birds build a new nest each year. Some that have more than one brood in a season will build a nest for each brood. Other species, particularly birds of prey will often repair their nests from year to year and use them for many years in a row.

Why do birds build nests in the first place? Evolution is the simple answer. It is most widely believed that birds evolved from exothermal (cold-blooded) creatures into animals that could no longer abandon their eggs to hatch in the heat of their environment. As warm-blooded creatures, they were compelled to supply warmth for their eggs through incubation. This necessitated the development of protective measures not only for the exposed eggs, but for also for the parent bird. It is believed that nest building became a necessary part of the breeding cycle. The first nests evolved as well as the builders, growing from simple scrapes in the ground, and natural cavities in trees, etc. to the more complex structures we are familiar with today. Intricate camouflage is often interwoven into the exterior to match the surrounding limb or foliage, such as the Acadian Flycatcher, Eastern Wood Pewee or Baltimore Oriole do in the construction of their nests.

City birds such as House Sparrows will take advantage of nearly any man-made device or piece of equipment. While in Rhinelander, Wisconsin last weekend I spotted the clever use of the raised external letters on the side of the local Trig’s grocery store that spelled, “PHARMACY.” These sparrows were happy as a Lark as they sat in the Catbird’s seat watching the shoppers enter and exit the store. It didn’t hurt either that the supply of 50 lb. black oil sunflower seeds were stacked under the drive-through awning, not 20 feet away from these opportunistic survivors. Several bags had “mysteriously” been punctured and were providing the onlookers with occasional stolen moments of enjoyable dining. I even was fortunate to take a photo from the Davenport Street Bridge of a swimming Pine Marten (Fisher) as it crossed the river towards the Wausau paper mill. This is the same area where I will routinely see the year’s first Yellow-rumped Warblers on the banks of the Wisconsin. Rhinelander is the Home of the Hodag don’t cha’ know and the green creature of lore is the same one utilized by the high school as their official mascot, is painted on the sides of the police vehicles, and is also used by several businesses in the city in their names. By the way; Hodags (I’m told) don’t eat claw-fuls of these small migratory breeders, nor do they mess with the feisty Martens…just keep your white Bulldogs in your car with the windows up.

Sources: Hal H. Harrison’s Peterson Field Guides “Birds Nests” (and my fertile imagination.)