Sunday, September 23, 2012

Blue Moon Weekend

Sky and Telescope asks, "When is the Moon 'blue,' in a calendrical sense? According to the Maine almanac, a Blue Moon occurs when a season has four full Moons, rather than the usual three. This type of Blue Moon is found only in February, May, August, and November, one month before the next equinox or solstice. According to modern folklore, a Blue Moon is the second full Moon in a calendar month. This type of Blue Moon can occur in any month but February, which is always shorter than the time between successive full Moons.  

I ask; "When is a Blue Moon drinkable?" Regardless of the real reason for calling a moon "blue," modern marketing rules:  Just make sure to drink a Blue Moon beer, under a Blue Moon.  We did.

It was Labor Day weekend 2012 and time to head "up the 43" to the north, for a late-summer camping trip.   The destination was Kohler/Andrae State Park.  I had fortuitously somehow found an electric site (only about a month prior) on Reserve America that had been released by whomever had earlier planned to use it.  Barbara and I loaded up the WPT with all our various sundry camping items,  the Canoe-dle and our bicycles for a three-day (roughing-it) relaxation period.   Our site was high on a rolling pine needle-covered hill of pure Wisconsin sand.  Tall, straight, mature White pines were all lined up in rows throughout our site; making it handy to tie ropes with fiberglass tarps in various places.  There was a small threat of inclement weather that never happened, but the tarps overhead did provide some welcome shade for our Cabela's brand, Zero-gravity chairs.

When I camp, I also bring along some bird seed.  I have seen some of the greatest birds right in the campsite - so I always want to put out a small offering, just in case.  This time it was a blend of seed that I found on clearance at Puhl's hardware in Wauwatosa for $ 2.99.  It wasn't my first choice, but I've been under a bit of a tight budget for obvious reasons.  Cheaper seed blends like this one contain far more milo (grain sorghum) fillers, cracked corn and far less sunflower seed than more expensive brands but what the heck; it was all I had.  I sprinkled a small pile at the base of several of the pines.  I thought that the millet and milo might attract sparrows and juncos (which it did) but never did I expect the absolute flurry of "other" activity that the small amount of black-oil sunflower seeds delivered.

Barbara and I sat drinking our vintage (E bay) Coleman stove-perked coffee and were treated to the most Red-breasted nuthatches I had ever seen in one place, at one time!  In one would fly, and land on a tree trunk near the ground.  It would chatter some kind of greeting, or warning, or whatever and then drop to the pile of seed below it.  The small reddish brown, black and white bird would stir its longish beak in the pile and come up with a sunflower seed and take off to a nearby tree.  The tiny birds would not even eat the seeds they took; instead, they found some crevice or fold in the pine bark and (with amazing speed and accuracy) pounded in the seed - leaving it behind as they flew in for another.  This cycle was repeated over and over again as the two of us sat watching, and listening to the chittering.  Occasionally a Black-capped chickadee would get too near this shuttling activity and be scolded soundly for its proximity, but these little dynamos were equal opportunity complainers - they would dive-bomb the larger White-breasted nuthatches too with equanimity.

With their strong toes and claws and unique ability to "run" over tree bark in any direction; they would even first deftly pound a small divot into the bark, before depositing their seed.  Red-breasted nuthatches form monogamous pairs. They usually excavate their own nest-cavities in a rotten snag, often aspen, and require fairly soft wood to excavate. They will occasionally use a natural cavity, old woodpecker hole, or artificial nest box. Both members of the nuthatch pair create the nest hole, and the female actually builds the nest inside. Their nest is a soft cup of grass, needles, bark fibers, moss, feathers, and hair. Both sexes coat the inside and outside of the nest hole entrance with pine pitch that may help keep predators and competitors away. They sometimes use a piece of bark as a tool to transport the pitch to the nest, and then smear it on the entrance hole. They avoid the pitch by flying straight into the hole. The female incubates 5 to 8 eggs for 12 to 13 days. Both parents feed the young for 18 to 21 days on the nest, and for about two more weeks after they have fledged.

The entertaining feathered activity around the campsite continued off and on throughout the entire glorious day.  A crazy looking Northern cardinal with most of its head feathers missing would show up and take a few seeds, along with a (quite normal-looking) female.  Barbara and I speculated aloud as to that peculiar relationship.  Perhaps it was some sort of Phantom of the Avian Opera attraction?  A thirteen-lined ground squirrel ran in fast and low to the ground filling up its cheek pouch several times; taking the moist oral stash back to its burrow about 15 yards away.  Chipping sparrows and the occasional junco would join the others, but weren't interested in the sunflower seed like the nuthatches were.  The sun continued to shine through the pines and kept the air at a perfect temperature as we sat and relaxed; watching the free nature show.  An Eastern towhee crept out of the leaf litter it had been foraging through to investigate the seed piles, but didn't stay long before retreating once more to the security of the underbrush.

Later that evening as our (Emerald ash borer-free) fire crackled and cast its warmth in the direction of our chairs; we both unscrewed icy-cold bottles of Blue Moon as we watched the uniquely glowing orb rising above Lake Michigan, peeking through the dark pines.  Lifting them to our lips, we thanked God for the chance to be there in the first place, and for the glory of His creation that surrounded us.  

Yes, life is good....VERY good indeed.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Unintentional Bird Species Cooperation

Sometimes it just works out that way...

On a warm and sunny afternoon, while walking back to the parking lot along the grassy approach to Lake Michigan the other day; Barbara noticed something interesting.  "Look what's going on there," she said.  I looked at the scores of swooping and diving Barn swallows zipping through the air in a particular section of the lush lawn.  Thankfully Milwaukee's lakefront had been finally getting some needed rainfall in the past several weeks, and the grass had returned nearly to its usual late summer luster.  "Yes, I see the swallows catching bugs," I replied and continued walking the concrete sidewalk back to our car.  We had just spent the better part of an hour leisurely walking the breezy lakefront from McKinley Marina all the way to the south side of the Milwaukee Art Museum.  She then said excitedly, "Yes, but look at the birds IN the grass...look what THEY are doing!"

I stopped and watched for a minute or two and noticed the dozen or so immature Brown-headed cowbirds hopping in the grass below the soaring, diving swallows.  "Cowbirds catching bugs," I said, and stood in wonder watching the activity on the ground.  "Uh-huh, but the little birds on the ground are causing the (barely noticeable) bugs to fly up into the air as they try to catch them!" she exclaimed.  Sure enough, the swallows overhead were definitely benefiting from the actions of the  cowbirds on the ground.  If you paid attention, you could see the swallows following the slow hopping progress below of their light brown kin, as they provided the same service as a typical whitetail deer-drive hunting technique might.  I stood there marveling at the unwitting cooperation between species and congratulated Barbara for picking up on this too easily-missed illustration of the glory of the natural world created by God.

How about this curious observation of bird behavior?  Earlier, we were noticing Cedar waxwings flying from the trees along the public walk next to the corrugated steel sea-wall.  The birds would disappear over the wall and be gone for about 30-45 seconds before popping back over and returning to the tree.  We watched this happen several times until we got close enough to see what the bird was doing near the water's edge.  We stared in awe as a waxwing flew over the steel barrier and hovered in front of a large spider web that had been strung in the inward section of the steel.  The bird would pluck a stuck insect from the spider's web for itself and fly off with its treat to devour it in the safety of a nearby tree.  "Wow!" was all I could say, as I pondered the accidental brilliance of this avian piracy.  Perhaps even the owner of the web itself was at risk of being a meal, but we didn't see that happen before we moved on down the lakefront.

Isn't that simply amazing?