30 September 2005

Friday bird blog

British Goose:
Goose stepping is for geese

Chumley was an employee of the Crystal Palace zoo in London in the 1960s. The caption says, "Chumley goose at London's Crystal Palace zoo soaks its feet in pan of water after a long day of "goose stepping."
Chumley's main mode of transportation, namely flying, most assuredly had been modified. No self-respecting goose would ground himself voluntarily, so zoo officials undoubtedly clipped his wings. Chumley's recompense - fleeting fame and a foot bath.

23 September 2005

Friday bird blog

Short-billed marsh wren

Illustration by Allan Brooks

from The Chicago Daily Tribune
August 11, 1954

Wren Nests on Bus
A London wren nested beneath the running board of a bus that made daily trips to Swanley, Kent. In South Africa a mountain chat constructed its home and raised a family beneath a railroad coach that racketed back and forth daily on a 62 mile run.

Man also provides birds with nesting materials. A pigeon in New York City fashioned an ultramodern nest entirely of paper clips. Two crows in India had the same idea, but used spectacle frames stolen from an occulist. Bald eagles especially like curios and have embellished their nests with electric light bulbs, bottles, shoes, corn cobs and tattered magazines.

21 September 2005

Mexican sunflower

Last January I was in a Lowe's store, and the seed display had just been put on the floor. It's impossible for me to pass one up anywhere. While I was scanning the heirloom offerings and herbs, a man came over and said, "Here. Try these. I'm in the business, and I use them all the time." He handed me a packet of Tithonia, also called Mexican sunflower. I tried Tithonia a few years ago but didn't get the seeds started soon enough. Despite the cheery information on the envelope, they take about 120 days from seed to first bloom in a warm summer.

I started 12 plants and ended up with only 2. When I put them in the ground, I surrounded them with all kinds of protective barriers and babied them like crazy until they took off.

They tell you to plant these by an old barn or fence - old wood anyway - as a backdrop or to use as a summer hedge. They are spectacular. Bees and butterflies are constant visitors.

19 September 2005

Monday morning sunflowers

Now disheveled by goldfinch forays, these sunflowers were perfect about three weeks ago. I thought I had planted Tarahumara from Seeds of Change in New Mexico. These look like Russian mammoth, though. Hmmm. I leave a few plants in the ground all winter. They give the juncos and tree sparrows an extra place to perch and add a little variety to the winter scene.

16 September 2005

Friday bird blog

An article from the Chicago Daily Tribune
August 11, 1954
~continued from last week~

Offer New Adventures
Gulls have learned to break open clams by dropping them on the boardwalks of seaside resorts and other man-made structures. This year, a family in Island Park, N.Y., was annoyed during daylight hours by a constant bombardment of clams on the flat white roof of their home. Finally, the family had a seascape painted on the roof in the hope of deceiving the birds.

Cities provide birds with new adventures in housing. When the American west was settled, house finches moved from canyons and deserts to towns. [NOTE: House finches were exotics like parrots or parakeets, which escaped into the environment. Today, all house finches are descended from those few birds.] Finches and sparrows feel so at ease in metropolitan habitats that they sometimes build their nests in traffic signals. Starlings, unfortunately, find no home more appealing than the protected ledges and ornamented cornices of public buildings.

By and large, birds find people tolerant of their eccentric nesting. When a sparrow built a home in the boom of a mobile crane in Trenton, Ont., the operator taped the nest securely and went right on with his job of moving heavy equipment.

to be continued …

Note: The House Sparrow isn’t a member of the sparrow family at all, but is a finch, the Weaver Finch to be precise. It, too, was an import, like purple loosestrife or the zebra mussel. Check out the beak. (We could get into a discussion of evolution here, but I’ll save that for another day when my energy cells are fully recharged.) Sparrows’ beaks are much smaller. On top of its omnipresence, the House Sparrow makes a very neat, secure, cozy nest, so its offspring have a good start in life.

Are not five sparrows
bought for two farthings?
And yet not one of them
is forgotten of God.
William Tyndale translation
of Luke 12:6

14 September 2005

The Common Loon: one family's encounter

Illustration by

Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Order Gaviiformes

Gavia immer immer

Common Loon

(From comments: I love this story. - Cosmic Rays)

By "HP"

I recently had one of the finest moments of my life, and it involved a loon.

I took the family to a friend's cabin "up north" in Wisconsin. They have a place just off an inland lake, near Eagle River. It was dusk of our last day up there, and I had promised the boys, 7 and 5, a canoe ride. We hurried through dinner and made our way to the canoe. I put them both on the forward thwart, each with his own paddle for his side, and I sat in back.

We headed out along the western shoreline of the lake, which made a half-circle, past the youth camp and their moored sailboats, past many cabins and trees and boats and beaches. As we reached a point directly opposite my friend's place, I decided to make a beeline across the lake because by this time it was getting very late. The water was dead calm and we could hear nothing but a few fish jumping, and the distant call of a loon.

As I turned the boat south and pointed it toward the camp, I noticed the nearly-full moon rising in the southwest, reflecting off the mirror of water and framing my view of the boys in the bow of the canoe. We were all stunned by the stillness of the perfect moment, and fell completely silent.

Just then, I caught sight of a loon flying into view just forward and west of the bow. It flew from right to left above the boys and below the moon. We could hear the stirring of the air around its wings as it passed. I paused to enjoy the moment, but also to record it in my mind forever.

I was strangely aware that, no matter what the future held for me as a man or a father or a husband, I would likely never enjoy a finer moment on this earth. We reluctantly paddled through the dusk across the lake, beached the canoe, and enjoyed the rest of the evening, flush with the satisfaction of the things we had seen and the accomplishment of our great adventure to the other side of the lake. We all slept really well that night.

American bittern

American Bittern
John James Audubon

It's a rare thing to see an American bittern except in paintings. Like many marsh inhabitants, it hides in the reeds, and its coloration blends perfectly with the landscape. Only the most intrepid, patient, careful birder ever gets a glimpse.

The nest photograph is from a book entitled appropriately enough, Birds' Nests by Richard Headstrom, published in 1949 by Ives Washburn, Inc. The photographer was taken by Hal H. Harrison. The text accompanying the photograph reads: "The American Bittern inhabits almost impenitrable swampy places where it builds a practically flat platform of dead flags."

Further description from the book: III. Marshes A. Open Nest 5. In dense cattail marshes; partially concealed by new flags growing among tall dead flags of previous season's growth. A practically flat platform of dead flags, a foot or more in diameter, raised above water or mud only a few inches. Occasionally flags are arched over nest. Nests also found in meadows over almost dry ground. Gulf of Mexico north through eastern and central United States.

When I was about nine years old we heard an American bittern in one of my mother's favorite bird haunts, which at the time was facing development - that is, death - at the hands of a cement company. They wanted to mine the nearby dunes for sand, and it would have destroyed the surrounding area as well. Once you've heard the American bittern, you won't soon forget it. Its nickname is "thunder pumper", so called for a speech that sounds like an old fashioned well pump - priming the pump, as the saying goes.

It seems that many of the places we used to go "birding" had well pumps, the state nature stations and preserves particularly. When we heard the bittern, the sound of the pump was recognizable straight away. That was the only time in my life I ever heard it, until this summer. Walking along a populated stretch of road at twilight my ears picked up the unmistakable sound. The residents in the locale have maintained the environment as much as possible, so the bittern, formerly reclusive, apparently has moved a little closer to town. I almost went back with a note for the homo sapiens to listen at dusk for one of the coolest sounds ever heard.

12 September 2005

Poetry break

The Pupil
Donald Justice

Picture me, the shy pupil at the door,
One small, tight fist clutching the dread Czerny.
Back then time was still harmony, not money,
And I could spend a whole week practicing for
That moment on the threshold.
Then to take courage,
And enter, and pass among mysterious scents,
And sit quite straight, and with a frail confidence
Assault the keyboard with a childish flourish!

Only to lose my place, or forget the key,
And almost doubt the very metronome
(Outside the traffic, the laborers going home),
And still to bear on across Chopin or Brahms,
Stupid and wild with love equally for the storms
Of C# minor and the calms of C.

09 September 2005

Friday Bird Blog

Illustration by Louis Agassiz Fuertes of Ithaca, New York, the most important ornothological artist next to John James Audubon.

Found between the pages of one of my mother's bird books, as we call her collection:

Flickers Use TV Antenna to Tap Reveille

Chicago Tribune Press Service
August 11, 1954

"Many birds have come to regard cities as wonderful clusters of caves, cliffs and convenient aids to living.

The flicker is one. This woodpecker with the built in pneumatic drill has discovered the television antenna. As an instrument for the flicker's early morning concerts, the metal antenna can hardly be surpassed by the most resounding tree.

New Habits Spread

As the birds of a species tend to pick up habits from each other, more and more TV owners probably will awaken in spring to the staccato of a flicker's ardent rapping.

Another avian fad was started by Britain's tiny titmice. IN 1921 a titmouse was seen uncapping and drinking from a milk bottle on a doorstep near Southampton. Since then the practice has spread thruout [Tribune style book word]the British Isles and into The Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, according to the National Geography Society.

....to be continued ....

01 September 2005

Takings takes a beating

People vs. Property has been in the news again here in the Great Lakes. In the town of Greenbush on Lake Huron a feud between neighbors over rights to beach access morphed into a lawsuit, which made its way eventually to the State Supreme Court.

One party’s property deed granted a 15 foot easement along the second party’s land for the purpose of walking to the lake front. When the second party purchased his land in 1997, the first party alleged that he began harassing her and her family, claiming that they were trespassing. The lawsuit sought to have the court rule not only on the easement, but to define the extent of the public’s right to the shoreline, as well.

Lots of dogs in this fight, of course. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce filed an amicus curiae brief supporting Property. A broad coalition of bankers, business people and property owners held fund raisers, set up web sites and organized quite a campaign to convince the court to define the public space on the shoreline as the wet part of the sand only. Of course, if the public can’t get to the wet sand without trespassing … Ah, ha! How cunningly simple!

Fortunately for the other 99.99 percent of us who don’t own Great Lakes lakefront property, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled 7-0 in favor of the public’s right to the shore line and 5-2 in defining the public access line to be the high water mark, not merely the wet part.

The Takings crowd was using the environment as an argument, beach grasses, bird sanctuary, anything they could get their hands on (as usual) to sew up their entitlement to a little slice of heaven without all the riff raff spoiling the view. True enough, there are idiots galore, and they pee anywhere they want like it’s 5000 years BC, they build fires and throw cigarette butts and beer cans all over tarnation. They’re rude and let their kids run wild. They don’t put their trash in trash cans. They get drunk and break bottles over each other’s heads.

But I don’t do any of the foregoing.

Save Our Shoreline.com and Preserve The Land (PTL) are available as domain names, if anyone is interested. The lawyers are boo-hooing about volley ball games and droves of fishermen setting up their equipment, but the ruling didn’t expand public rights at all. It merely reaffirmed them.