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.