Friday, May 20, 2011

Starfish (moments)

Every day an old man walked on the beach picking up starfish that had been washed ashore by the tide and he threw them back into the sea.

One day a young boy stopped the old man and asked," Mister, why do you throw the starfish back into the sea?"

The old man answered," Because they will die in the hot sun if left here stranded on the beach."

“But sir, there are so many and the beach goes on for miles. You can`t possibly make a difference."

The old man slowly bent over once more, picked up another starfish and threw it back into the sea and replied, "IT MADE A HUGE DIFFERENCE FOR THAT ONE."

Perhaps you have heard this story and even had your own “starfish” moments. Times when you did something which others might think pointless or unimportant in the grand scheme, but you did it anyway. I had one recently which I’d like to tell you about because it just felt good.

Barbara and I were birding along a posted (no trespassing) Department of Transpiration Mitigation Pond area. Guilty hint: As any honest birder will tell you; the posted areas always have the best bird watching. The glimmering water was alive with an amazing variety of bird species, mostly protected from the view of speeding cars on the roadway. A small drainage creek also ran perpendicular to the roadway next to the pond and under the two wide lanes of traffic. After carefully dodging multiple cars zooming along the road from the small strip-mall parking lot to the grass near the pond, a quick glance toward the creek provided a glimpse of a pair of large water birds with a small “baby” bird paddling along behind. The trio had emerged from one of the twin culverts, did a quick u-turn and swam back into the other shaft. “Awww…wasn’t that precious?” I asked as the birds disappeared into the darkness under the road.

We had not walked another ten feet up stream of the creek when I heard noises and saw three other of these same large wading birds (I later identified them as Limpkins) standing at the edge of the creek in a muddy, stagnant and mossy trapped area of water. The “leader” of the group looked up from the water and at the two of us. (I later reflected that the look on the lead bird’s face was one of guilt, but more on that later). I grabbed the camera around my neck and began snapping images of these large animals when suddenly; the leader looked back into the water and began repeatedly stabbing its long bill downward. I admit at times I am not too swift, however I immediately understood what the lead Limpkin was doing…it was pounding on a tiny fluffy figure that was chirping and twirling in the shallow water. The damn bully limpkin was trying to KILL the baby bird.

The Evil Limpkins

While Barbara has heard my speech about nature and my belief in the circle of life, and all – I acted swiftly, surprisingly (and perhaps) uncharacteristically. Chasing away the “evil” Limpkins, I scooted down as far down the muddy creek-side as possible and scooped the struggling wee one from its soon to be watery grave. While doing that I also noticed that the band of marauders had already killed another baby as it was floating near the still alive chick. I removed that one too and gently placed it on the ground near the bank. I thought that perhaps this seemingly senseless death might provide some sustenance for some other carrion eating creature, so I left it sadly there. Now what to do with the survivor?

“Oh great, we’re not even supposed to be prowling around this Mitigation area, we’re from out of town, and we have a baby (something) to take care of!” I frustratedly said. I brushed off some of the creek slime and walked to where we had previously seen the swimming family. It seemed as though that this damaged baby bird closely resembled the other one that had trailed the two parent birds; could they all be Limpkins? That realization quickly made me glad with my decision to assist in the backwater mauling and assassination attempt as I could not understand why a bird of the same species would kill one of its young (let alone TWO of its young) unless there was something kinda’ funky going on. Anthropomorphically speaking (and that’s the best any of us can do, cause none of us actually speak or understand “animal” – and don’t let anyone on YouTube know this, but it’s true) it looked like there was some serious evil Limpkin-esque jealousy going on…kinda’ a “since I couldn’t have any babies neither will YOU!” Hell I don’t know…I just know that baby Limpkins are NOT on the traditional menu of fellow Limpkins next to the Apple Snail salad.

Limpkins with Apple Snails

I bent over the creek near the culvert and gently flipped the baby into the cleaner water hoping it would (I’m not sure) swim somewhere safer than where it had gotten itself previously marooned into. Mistake. Apparently the small figure twisting in the water – basically drowning – was not ready to be swimming. Crap! “I have to get it back out!” I yelled as Barbara ran for something, anything. “I found a stick!” she exclaimed and grabbed it, bringing it back to me. I awkwardly fished the water-logged bird out and back where I could reach it with a sigh. “Now what!?” I said. Thinking for a moment, I settled for a shaded Cyprus tree trunk with several crinkles along its base nearer the pond. “Well, that didn’t work too well now did it?” I admitted. “Let’s leave the little guy there for now and go see some more of the bird life around here. Maybe it will be OK there,” I convinced myself as I walked away listening to it pitifully peeping.

Black-bellied whistling ducks!

There were some pretty amazing birds ahead of us on the actual pond including two pairs of a new life birds, Black-bellied whistling ducks!  They have pinkish-orange bills and are quite stunning.  We also saw White Ibis, Tri-colored Heron, Morph Mallards, Little blue Heron, Great blue Heron, Snowy Egret, and Great Egret on our short trip up and back.  We eventually arrived back at the spot where I had set the little baby Limpkin and noticed that the band of evil Limpkins were advancing on the still peeping bird.  The bird had somehow waddle-limped its way partly up the small embankment as we reached it.  "I have an idea" I said to Barbara and scooped up the fluff-ball with big feet,  Shielding the hatchling against my body, I approached the busy roadway to wait out the strings of traffic, trying to look nonchalant as I stood there ready to bolt across the pavement.

Birdstud with a baby Limpkin

When the traffic lightened enough to scoot, we did.  I explained to Barbara that I had hopes that the small "family" we had seen earlier might be on the other side of the roadway, having swam all the way across under the roadway.  As we crested the shoulder and could look into the creek, our hearts soared with anticipation when we saw the three birds swimming happily on that side of the road.  Without any fanfare, I quickly deposited the small Limpkin on the near shoreline and backed away.  It did a few somersaults and landed in the water and began peeping loudly.  Dare we hope that the other birds would embrace our offering?

We held our breath and only had to wait about 20 seconds before we knew the answer: the Limpkin family quickly swam over from the far bank to check out the small, peeping brown paddler.  Barbara and I looked at each other and I could see a tear in her eyes as she clapped her hands with joy.  It looked like the Limpkin parents would accept the new charge without exception.  Who knows?  The injured baby (and recently killed sibling) may have even been theirs only an hour before an unfortunate separation.  Regardless, the two of us stood watching the scene as the four made their way to the other side of the creek once more. 

Tense Limpkin moment

There was a tense moment as the still struggling baby could not force its way through some of the thicker muck and looked extremely weak and tired.  As we watched and waited, amazingly both parent Limpkin waded back out and used their breast to punch a trail for the baby to more easily traverse!  It was going to be fine!  We turned and slowly walked to the car feeling like we had done something important but would never know the whole truth.  About the only thing we both knew for sure, was that our actions had made a HUGE difference to that baby Limpkin, and we felt good.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Watch the crows...

Spring birding in southeastern Wisconsin is truly wonderful! Leaves are a few more weeks ahead of completely blocking your line of sight, and the cooler temperatures keep hungry mosquitoes from hatching. On windless days not a twig is moving and so the only thing that does are what you are searching for. Animals of all sizes and varieties are shaking off the grip of a long winter piled with deep snow. Bird watchers all over the country are venturing out each morning and afternoon; walking their tried and trusted pathways in search of early visitors. Careful notes are jotted and shared with the like-minded. FOY (First of Year) sightings delight the hearts and minds of the faithful, while being dutifully compared to previous annual observations. Dates and temperatures are frequently noted along with time, place and total counts. Seemingly meaningless data in the grand scheme of things, however to the avowed birder – the clock by which they set their watch.  
In the uplifting words of poet Emily Dickinson; these are the days when “hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.” What word more appropriately embodies the promise of better things to come after the many long, cold, and gray days, than “hope”? Bird watchers and nature enthusiasts as well venture out again and again with bucketfuls of hope listening intently for all manner of tunes without words. Songs that just last fall were on the tips of our brains sound as brand new when first again heard each year. The subtle differences between the of a straggling Dark-eyed junco and a newly arrived Yellow-rumped warbler need time to soak in after months of dormancy. Yes, springtime…ahh…wonderful springtime!

Dr. Paul Hunter, Associate Medical Director, City of Milwaukee Health Department and avid birding enthusiast recently gave a well-attended talk within a community center at Lake Park. The subject which drew a room full of eager listeners was not about the impending convergence of migrating warblers; but instead was dedicated to a more commonplace and ordinary bird species – the American crow. Paul’s seminar (complete with PowerPoint slides) discussed the nuances of crow vocalizations and their brush with endangered status due to the 2004 West Nile Virus – a mosquito born danger, especially to these birds, and their come-back over the past seven years. One salient point that my friend Barbara and I picked up was something that neither of us had known; that crows and Great-horned owls despise each other. I am certain that some of the more seasoned watchers attending the talk knew this factoid and had used it to their advantage – however it was not in my personal arsenal of great outdoor tricks of the trade.

Apparently Great-horned owls love to kill and eat crows, and conversely (who knew?) crows do not love to be killed and/or eaten. Paul regaled the group with a few crow VS owl anecdotes and followed up with the coup de grace; “if you want to find a Great-horned owl – watch the crows.” Good advise I thought and tucked that nugget into my brain for another day. Who could have figured that “another day” would be about 2 weeks later while birding at Havenwoods (a Wisconsin State Forest that resides uniquely and entirely within the Milwaukee city-limits). Barbara and I were just about to head down the hillside towards the small drainage creek that runs north/south through the western 1/3 of the forest when a raucous noise was heard to the east. “Crows!” I announced and added, “Remember what Paul told us about those sounds and Great-horned owls?” Before you know it, we had turned around covering the 500 or so feet of distance and had stationed ourselves just into binocular range to watch. Around 75 feet ahead and up in the trees were about two-dozen large black birds making about as much noise as possible, while flying nervously back and forth between trees. About that same time, I noticed a large red-brown coyote scurry into the woods just to my right, and called out to Barbara regarding my sighting – Barbara just LOVES coyotes while birding…NOT!

We watched for about ten minutes (with one eye warily on the spot where the coyote had disappeared) and could not detect what the crow disturbance was all about. Little by little the small murder moved southward and all noise soon subsided into the distance. Barbara and I walked slowly in that same general direction but not with any real idea of interception – we just kept on birding as we moved along. We soon found ourselves walking along a grassy path through a more mature stand of deciduous trees. The crows had definitely pushed onward and southward as I could follow the sounds as they faded and faded when off to my left, a very large silent shape caught my eye as it moved from the ground and into the canopy of leaf-less branches. “There!” I cried to Barbara and pointed to my left as I watched the shape moving south and up into some large trees in the distance. Neither of us could actually see where the shape had alighted, but we were certain that it was up in the distance somewhere.

The woods on both sides of the path were eerily quiet as we slowly crept towards the area of the trees we thought might secret our feathered quarry. We had gone about 100 feet when a large shape was evident to my eyes up in a large tree. I excitedly whisper-croaked, “There!” as we stopped to train our binoculars onto what turned out to be the object of the crow’s angst, a Great-horned owl! Long binocular-ed looks and multiple images were captured as the both of us stood there in awe of such a magnificent creature in the middle of unlikely Milwaukee woodlands. Son of a Gun! (I thought) – Paul was right…I’ll be darned!

Keep your eyes (and ears) on the crows indeed.