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