Sunday, December 28, 2014

Brigantine Birds

In a now-annual Christmas tradition (five years running!), I took a trip with Paul's dad on Tuesday out to the Brigantine division of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge while we were visiting family in New Jersey for the holidays. With an eight-mile wildlife drive through coastal wetlands, this is a pretty special place, and there are always lots of interesting birds hanging around. Some of the coolest creatures are the Snow Geese that come down from their arctic breeding grounds to overwinter here in huge numbers:

We estimated the Snow Geese on Tuesday numbered somewhere in the thousands. They made quite a sight blanketing the marsh as they foraged, and they were striking in flight as well, with those black-tipped wings:

Most of the Snow Geese wore pristine white costumes:

But there were a few blue morph individuals as well; I think these birds are particularly handsome:

Here's a (very) brief video of some of the Snow Geese foraging; the sound should give an idea of how crowded the area was with these birds:

Lots of other cool birds made an appearance during our visit as well. This gorgeous Great Blue Heron was hunting near the road:

A Greater Yellowlegs (such an appropriate name!) brightened up the shoreline:

And there were ducks all over the place. We saw big American Black Ducks that flashed the iridescent patches in their wings as they bathed:

Buffleheads that dipped in and out of the water, pursuing their meals:

Ruddy Ducks with their funny round bodies and big beaks:

Flashy Hooded Mergansers:

And a single female Common Goldeneye, looking quite pretty in her simple costume:

It was great to get out to the shore and see so many creatures. What an awesome place!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Some Lake Erie Birds

On Monday afternoon I was out shopping and found myself next to Lake Erie. It was a beautiful sunny day -- quite rare around here lately -- and I had brought my camera and binoculars with me, so I settled down on the town's public beach to watch the water.

I guess I still haven't posted much here about this Great Lake, which is crazy, because I'm astonished every time I encounter it. This lake is so much more ocean-like to me than the Long Island Sound (which is my ocean paradigm after living in Connecticut) mostly because I can't see the land on the other side, and also because I've already seen bigger waves here than I usually saw in Connecticut. On Monday, though, the lake was surreal, with flat, barely moving water that blended exactly with the sky in the low afternoon light. This has got to be one of the strangest landscapes (or maybe make that water-scapes) I've seen:

It took a big passing barge to create the horizon with its wake:

Aside from the amazing water-scenery, I had a lot of fun meeting the local birds as well. Ring-billed Gulls made up most of the population, and the lighting was just perfect for pictures of these handsome birds as they moved from water to shore:

There was quite a bit of jostling on the beach every time one of the gulls came in for a landing:

The Ring-billed Gulls made handsome sights on the reflective water as well:

But mostly I just had way too much fun taking pictures of them in flight:

A Great Black-Backed Gull loomed over the smaller Ring-billed Gulls from its rock:

Several ducks made brief appearances as well. These two female (or immature male) Buffleheads came closer to shore when the barge went past:

And then they took off in a series of splashes:

This bigger group of Buffleheads made a water landing a little further away, the males showing off their pink clown feet (ducks can be so funny looking):

A few Common Mergansers flew past, too, a bit like arrows with those pointy beaks:

With so many interesting creatures and sights, visiting Lake Erie is always a good idea.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Streamside Traffic and Ghosts of Creatures Past

I was happy to discover yesterday that the banks along the creek behind our house gather some interesting signs of animal traffic. There were deer prints, of course, sometimes quite deep in the mud (I think there's something of a deer highway through these woods):

And little hand-prints, which (I'm pretty sure) were left by a passing raccoon:

The bank with these tracks was also dug up in several spots. What tasty treats might a raccoon find buried in the mud and rocks?

The creek's banks held another type of animal artifact, again (I think) from a raccoon, but this one long dead:

Skulls are definitely interesting -- look how bright and sharp those teeth are -- but I didn't feel the need to explore this object more closely. It'll stay on the bank until the water rises again and carries it off somewhere else.

Speaking of long-gone creatures, I've been keeping an eye out for Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, because the signs of these birds are all over our yard. This tree in front of our house features several conspicuous lines of sapsucker holes:

And I've come across a few trees in the woods that are about as covered with sapsucker work as it's possible for a tree to be:

It must have taken years for the sapsuckers to so thoroughly work over this tree:

But all the holes I've seen are pretty old by now, and I haven't come across any more recent signs of these birds. I wonder why this former sapsucker territory is apparently abandoned now.

It's always interesting to see signs that creatures have left, although I still prefer to see the creatures themselves!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Pine Siskins and American Goldfinches

I think we've moved quickly past fall and firmly into winter. We had our first real snow at the beginning of the week (just a few inches), and the weather's been unrelentingly frigid and windy since then, with highs in the 30s during the day and lows in the single digits at night. So yes, hello winter!

All the birds in our yard are active in this wintry weather, especially around our feeders, and the finches are making a particularly strong appearance. Yesterday, I was surprised and happy to see that some new winter visitors have blown into our yard. Look, Pine Siskins!

My first thought when I saw one these birds was actually "wow, why is that goldfinch so stripey"? They really are remarkably similar to American Goldfinches, just about exactly the same size, with similar finchy mannerisms and dark barred wings. We've had goldfinches at our feeders for weeks now, so of course that was my first assumption about the ID of these small brown birds. But no, once I payed attention, these were no goldfinches. American Goldfinches look quite different, as several nearby handsome individuals made clear:

I've seen Pine Siskins only a few times before -- once during a winter visit to Paul's family in New Jersey, and again on a vacation in Utah -- and while these birds wander into Connecticut in small numbers in the winter, I never did see them while I lived there. And they're not common in Ohio either. So it's exciting indeed to have these northern birds visiting our Ohio yard! I'm really liking their yellow-accented wing feathers and pointy beaks:

Quite a subtly pretty bird:

The best surprise has been that the black oil sunflower seeds we put in our window feeders have been such a hit with the various finches in our yard. I'd thought that finches only went for smaller seeds (like thistle), which we don't offer, but the American Goldfinches, House Finches, and now Pine Siskins seem to like the sunflower seeds perfectly well:

Another fun surprise: I've noticed in recent weeks that the American Goldfinches are really bossy at our feeders, frequently chasing off larger Tufted Titmice and holding their ground with raised wings and open beaks. But now the Pine Siskins are here, and apparently they hold rank over even the goldfinches. If a siskin's at the feeder, it's going to stay there for as long as it darn well pleases, and if it wants a seed on the other end of the feeder, well the other birds had better get out of the way. I have way too much fun watching these various birds interact. Here's a video of one of the ultra-bossy Pine Siskins doing its thing (don't mind the somewhat dirty window):

Hooray for snow and winter birds! Who knows what fancy visitors will show up next.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Red-bellied Woodpecker

This handsome male Red-bellied Woodpecker was working over a tree outside our window yesterday, and clearly he needed his portrait taken:

OK, I see a faint wash of reddish-pink on his belly, and I love his blushing cheeks and breast as well. But of course the feature that really stands out is that brilliant flame-red cap. What an awesome color:

He also spent some time perched on a nearby branch, looking as puffy as I've ever seen a woodpecker. From this angle, I can almost imagine I'm looking at some strangely-outfitted finch:

But no, that's a woodpecker all right:

Thanks for the photo shoot, handsome bird! It's definitely great to have these guys around.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Visiting Opossum

A surprising visitor showed up right outside our basement window tonight: a Virginia Opossum! It was rustling around in the dry leaves, probably searching out the sunflower seeds that the birds regularly scatter from our window feeder. We carefully opened the window to peer out at it (it was just a few feet away!) and it looked right back at us before running (well, waddling) away:

I've never seen an opossum so close and just going about its business before. (I have met opossums in live traps destined for relocation in the past, and those individuals were not exactly happy.) Look at that face! I'd say this is quite a lovely creature.

The opossum came back and spent some more time foraging in the same spot after we closed the window (even with the lit room and people moving around behind the glass). Then about an hour later, I was working on another floor, and I heard some suspicious leaf-rustling coming from outside the big glass doors. This fellow had found a second seed spot (beneath another window feeder), and it was foraging right next to the glass! I can't believe how much it just did not care about the room and porch lights and our faces and cameras inches away from it (until, that is, it noticed we were there). How amazing to be so close to this creature! Here's a video of our visitor at work:

Happy foraging, bold opossum!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Rainy November Fox Squirrel

The scenery around our yard is particularly stark right now, and things get even bleaker when it rains. This lovely Fox Squirrel was huddled in a tree outside our window on a recent gray afternoon:

How nice it must be to have a fluffy tail to use as an umbrella/blanket in the rain:

Even if we no longer have colorful autumn leaves on the trees, at least our neighborhood Fox Squirrels can still brighten things up!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Raptors, Rodents, and Reptiles (and More) at Sheldon Marsh

Yesterday was sunny and gorgeous and not all that cold, so I headed out for my first dedicated woods walk in a public park since moving to Ohio. (It sounds crazy, I know, but I've been so impressed with the nature in our own yard that I haven't really felt the need to explore other places.) I've been very curious about this whole Great Lake thing, so I drove up to Sheldon Marsh Nature Preserve, which is right on the shore of Lake Erie. For such a small park (there was only a mile or so of trails) this place had a whole lot of things going for it, including really lovely woods, fields, marshes, and beaches, and wildlife all over the place.

A Red-tailed Hawk was soaring over the small field near the entrance right when I arrived:

At the edge of the lake, an even bigger raptor was keeping watch:

I'm fairly certain this is the closest I've been to a wild Bald Eagle. An impressive bird indeed:

Wow, what a huge beak. I wouldn't want to be a smaller creature in this bird's sights:

Ready for launch (the tree's branches got in the way of my pictures of the takeoff):

The path through the forest featured lots of small mammal activity, even with all the people walking by. Fox Squirrels buried nuts next to the path and waved their fancy red tails:

We have regular old Gray Squirrels around here too, but I see Fox Squirrels much more often -- a first for me, since I've never lived in a place with Fox Squirrels before. I definitely admire their orange bellies and tails.

This Eastern Chipmunk was keeping an eye on me, but it was much more interested in the second Eastern Chipmunk a few feet away (a grand chase began soon after I took this picture):

I was surprised and happy to see several Painted Turtles basking in one of the ponds, even though it's getting quite late in the year:

We have a different subspecies of Painted Turtle out here than we had in Connecticut (Midland vs. Eastern Painted Turtles), but I still recognize these guys as familiar friends. I love the extreme balancing act of the turtle on the far left of this picture.

I was just a footstep away from this little Brown Snake before I noticed it. It's a good thing twigs aren't usually so curvy! I took this picture then urged the little fellow off the path and out of the way of dangerous feet:

I got to meet a new (for me) bird on this visit, too. Rusty Blackbirds have been declining dramatically in numbers in recent decades and they're listed as "vulnerable" by the IUCN. A couple of these handsome fellows were hanging out with some Red-winged Blackbirds and they stopped only briefly for a picture before heading off to forage in the swampy woods:

A bunch of different ducks were hanging out in the marsh, and I was super happy to meet a pair of Wood Ducks close to the path. They were foraging behind a screen of bushes, which made picture-taking rather difficult, but it also helped them feel safe despite the person with the camera nearby. Wood Ducks are -- I think -- the most beautiful of ducks. The female was lovely (with duckweed on her bill, so cute), and I love the faint sheen of iridescent purple in her hair:

And of course the male was resplendent:

I love the way he looks against the reflected fall trees:

And boy do I wish this next picture was entirely in focus! I had no idea his wings would be so colorful as well:

As I was leaving, I met the most personable (or perhaps most tired/hungry) White-throated Sparrow ever:

This little bird kept hopping along the path I was taking, basically right next to me. It would startle up every few seconds while I walked, but then it would come back and continue foraging on my path, only a few feet away. So I did what I used to do with shorebirds in Connecticut: I walked a little ways ahead of the bird and then crouched down and let it keep foraging and work its way toward me. I've never had a sparrow come so close!

The food on this path must have been really good; this bird found a morsel every few steps:

It's nice to get a sparrow's-eye view of the woods every once in a while:

So Sheldon Marsh turned out to be a lovely place, with lots of awesome creatures. I'm sure I'll make my way back here at some point!