Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Urban Birding, Texas Style

Like puppies, wild parrots seem to make everyone smile. On a recent trip to south Texas, our trip leader, Bill, headed toward a couple of addresses in McAllen that offered some great urban birding. The first was in a residential neighborhood. A lady on her front porch began yelling to us as soon as our big van pulled up. I can certainly understand why homeowners would feel uncomfortable when strangers with binoculars pull up to your house. We yelled back, "We're just looking at birds!" but we weren't listening—she was saying, "Come on into my driveway!" When we finally heard her welcome, we stepped on over and got a great view of 5 Red-crowned Parrots screeching in a palm tree.

The welcoming attitude was more surprising to me than the parrots. Most birders are used to wariness if not hostility from residents. I've had people call the police on me during Christmas Counts. Birding is big business in Texas—I knew that, but I just didn't know how supportive the average person is in south Texas. Impressive!

Our next stop was a strip mall on 10th Street. Around sunset, we waited by the huge fountain in front of Lowe's. The parking lot was full of cars with plates from Iowa, Wisconsin, Ontario—everyone waiting for the Green Parakeets. Most didn't have binoculars, but as I say, everyone loves wild parrots, not just birders. Suddenly with great fanfare and squeaky chattering, a flock of 500 Green Parakeets jostled for position on the overhead wires. After checking the scene, they flew over to the fountain and began to bathe. A few moments later, a Cooper's Hawk streaked in, chasing the parakeets first low, then high over the roofs. Cooper's Hawks really love wild parrots! Most of the non-birders left, but it didn't take long for the flock to regroup and circle back to the fountain. Urban birding at its best!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Snow Magnolias

Once the temperatures reach the 80°s (F), as they did here on Monday, March 21, you sort of think you're entitled to spring.
But Wednesday brought winds over 30 mph and the sweet gum balls fell like a hailstorm over the St. Louis area. Today, we have 4 inches of snow and counting.
If spring comes, can winter be far behind?
(Apologies to Shelley.) Photos by AMcC

Thursday, March 24, 2011

For a Few Bags of Gumballs

Into each life, some Sweet Gum balls must fall. AMcC
Spray them gold if you must, but how many can you really use for decorations? Over at Nature in the Ozarks, Marvin has quite a list of nicknames for them, like "monkey ball" and "bommyknocker." Here is suburbia, we often use names that are, well, less polite. I'm talking, of course, about the dreaded, despised, despicable Sweet Gum ball. I spent hours this week scooping up the winter's load of gum balls, filling more than 4 huge paper "yard waste" sacks. After yesterday's high winds, the yard and driveway are just as covered as they ever were. This morning, my poor old long-haired dachshund came in with a half-dozen stuck in her tail. Steve Niks, at About.com, found that Sweet Gum tied with the misnamed Tree of Heaven for "Most Hated Tree in America." So reviled is this barbed ball, that home owners sometimes lay out thousands of dollars to have the tree removed.

That's too bad because Sweet Gum, Liquidamber styraciflua, is really the archetype of trees. It's a big, healthy tree, and if utility company tree-trimmers don't come after it, the Sweet Gum will grow into a perfect pyramid. It doesn't have disease problems like crabapples. It won't split up in a storm, like Bradford pears. It doesn't stain your car, sidewalk, and white siding like mulberry; doesn't stink to high heaven like a Gingko. It's not invasive; in fact, it's native to Missouri and the East all the way south to Central America. What's more, according to USDA Forest Service, it won't produce the dreaded "cukoo bir" till it's 20 years old. So, if you're planning on moving within 19 years, go ahead and plant one! If not, be advised that Trees of Missouri, by Settergren and McDermott, records a tree in Tywappity Bottom (now Scott County in southeast Missouri) that was 140 feet tall and 5 feet wide at the trunk.
Tom Davis managed to capture an image of a winter-plumaged Am. Goldfinch with a Sweet Gum seed in its beak!
The leaves are five-pointed stars, a beautiful deep green in summer. Fall color is red and purple—out of this world! Sweet Gums are excellent shade trees. My neighbor's trees shade my roof, according to the USDA Forest Service, reducing my cooling costs by 30%, and 10-50% reduction in heating, according to the Missouri Dept. of Conservation

Saint James is the Sweet Gum Capital of Missouri, although even in that fair city, there seems to be some controversy about the "conkleberry."
Freshly emerged Luna Moth, photo by Sophro
There are creatures that love Sweet Gums: finches, squirrels, luna moths and, reportedly, a few suburban humans. In his book, Caterpillars of Eastern North America, David Wagner lists Sweet Gum as one of the hosts of Luna, Regal (Royal Walnut), and Promethea moths. Worth a few bags of gum balls, don't you think?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Always After Me Lucky Charms!

Photo by stuant63

Everyone loves a wildlife webcam, and due the fact that tomorrow is a special day for anyone who likes parades, cabbage, funny hats, red hair and green beer, it's time for "Website Wednesday" to feature The Leprechaun Watch! This webcam fascinates my young students. Each year we include a brief view of the panorama webcam in our morning video announcements, and at least one sharp-eyed viewer will spot one of the wee folk. For the lover of wild life, the website also includes a field guide to the fairies, including the pooka, banshee, and changling.

Did you see that?
St. Patrick's Day has lots to recommend it, as holidays go. You don't have to give gifts. You don't have to go to church or stuff a turkey. There are no ashes, no hunting for eggs in the rain, no pressure to buy long-stem roses or jewelry. When I lived for a few years in Cairo, Illinois, they honored the day by pinching anyone who wasn't wearing green. I never did get that. Here in my native St. Louis, Missouri, where we like to observe heartily, we eat corned beef, cabbage, green snake-shaped loaves of bread, and most people wash that down with an Anheuser-Busch product. How do you celebrate in the middle of March?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Spring Migration in St. Louis' Forest Park

For 20 years, my friend Randy Korotev kept extensive notes on birds in Forest Park on the west edge of Saint Louis MO. His article, "Counting Warblers; A Timetable for the Spring Songbird Migration Through Saint Louis," with original data is available online or as a PDF. Click on "Bird and Birding Information," then "Timetable for Spring Migration."

I decided to illustrate his data using TimeToast, arbitrarily choosing the year 2009. Just hover the mouse over the balloons to display them. Click once to see text, links, photo, and photo credit. To extend the timeline and see the dates farther apart, slide the control on the bottom in toward the center. In my other set of pajamas, I teach computer at an elementary school. I made a tutorial video for TimeToast if you're interested. Please feel free to use my "Peak Migration TimeToast" for non-commercial purposes.

In addition to this amazing feat of record-keeping and persistence, Randy is a true Renaissance man. I interviewed him about moon rocks last summer and returned to the moon rock story last December. Visit him at his lunar meteorite website!

Below is the list of generous photographers who licensed their photo with Creative Commons so we all could enjoy them.
Fox Sparrow, and Golden-crowned Kinglet, Yellow-throated Warbler by Seabrooke Leckie (See her blog, The Marvelous in Nature)
Winter Wren, and Field Sparrow by Kelly Colgan Azar
Louisiana Waterthrush, by Bill Majoros
Hermit Thrush, by Jamie Chavez
Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Worm-eating Warbler by Jerry Oldenettel
Pine Warbler and Brown Thrasher, by Vicki DeLoach
Prairie Warbler, by Dominic Sherony
Yellow-rumped Warbler by pheanix
Orange-crowned Warbler by Andrew Reding
Prothonotary Warbler by naathas

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Hole in One!

Whoopee! Rufous Hummingbird photo by Rick Leche

If your yard has hummingbirds, you've got more action than Smokey and the Bandit! More mischief than a barrel full of cairn terriers! Hummingbirds tear around the feeders like Steve McQueen in a green Mustang fastback! That's why many of us are counting the days till the little winged hellions return.

Which brings me to today's "Website Wednesday": hummingbird bander Lanny Chambers' web-site, Hummingbirds.net. Every time I write about hummingbirds, I have to give credit to Lanny. When I posted about the recapture of a Rufous Hummingbird with a record-breaking migration,  he told me, “This spectacular recapture is like a blind golfer making a hole-in-one on a million-yard hole! I've banded about 2500 hummers in 10 years. Exactly two have been recaptured elsewhere.” 

Over the years that I've known him, he's given me plenty of information about nectar feeders, which he makes available on the site. He explains why the structure of the feeder is important, as I mentioned in my post about feeders last August. He's given us information about hummingbird babies, and their look-alike neighbors, the hummingbird moths. For my post "They'd Rather Fight than Switch," Lanny told me about Dennis Demcheck's article, “Sugar Content of Hummingbird Plants in Louisiana Gardens.” Demcheck used a refractometer to measure the concentration of sugar in the nectar of blossoms in his garden—information used by many a hummingbird gardener to improve the crop!

Lanny's site was featured by the Librarians' Internet Index—now the Internet Public Library. The popular education website Journey North: A Global Study of Wildlife Migration and Seasonal Change asked him to write their Frequently Asked Questions page. He's a frequent contributor to the HumNet forum. His website includes information you'll have a hard time finding anywhere else, but my favorite page is the migration map. I check it often to see how close Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are to me. I always try to be the first in my area to report one to Lanny, but no luck so far. Last year, 4,122 people sent him a "first of the year" hummingbird report! 

Type "hummingbirds" into the Google search box and see what comes up first out of 3.25 million results. Go on—I dare you!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Slepen all the Nyght with Open Eye

My 16-year-old dachshund needs help with the steps when it's time to go outside. I am usually focused on carrying her and avoiding a fall, but Sunday night I was startled with I noticed what looked like a dark ball tucked into the corner of my awning. Was it a mouse? A chipmunk? A tangled mass of sweet gum balls? Some horrible growth of fungus?

Because of the dire predictions of storms crawling across the bottom of the TV screen all day, I had my flashlight ready. With the added light, I recognized the color. It was not a rodent or ball of goo, it was a Carolina Wren!

In spite of my closeness, the wren didn't budge. She even tolerated the flash of my camera. Was she sound asleep, or just riding the storm out? We had straight-line winds that night—March 4—and nearby Illinois had numerous tornadoes.

Tolerant as she was, it's unlikely that the bird was unaware of my presence. Mike O’Connor, in his 2007 book Why Don't Woodpeckers Get Headaches? And Other Answers to Bird Questions You Know You Want to Ask  (p. 188), tells us that birds sleep lightly, ready to fly if danger threatens. He explains that a bird often sleeps by turning its head towards its back and settling its beak onto its shoulder. I can't say if my little feathered friend is using this method in the photo above, but I can at least see that her feathers are fluffed to help trap warmth. I'm sure she appreciated the awning that night, since in addition to the high winds and rain, the temperature was in the high 30s F. By the way, O’Connor is a lively and entertaining writer. I really get a kick out of this book!

Birds need to take advantage of every opportunity for shelter left to them in the suburbs. Tom over at Mon@rch's Nature Blog, wrote about an American Goldfinch that he spotted as it turned in for the night in the gap between his foundation and a snow bank. The "Father of English Literature" also wrote about napping birds in the "Prologue":

And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye

Back in the day, Geoffrey Chaucer and his pilgrim friends would have pronounced that last word as "ee," so it really did rhyme with "melodye." Old Geoff was more accurate than we thought. Former St. Louisan and Big Day birding teammate of mine, Niels Rattenborg, demonstratted in his research that birds can put one half of the brain to bed, while leaving the other half—and the eye that it controls—alert to danger. Using this unihemispheric form of sleep even allows some birds to fly while they sleep!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

GAP: Gap Analysis Program

It's Website Wednesday again, but it's going to take me more than a week to study all the aspects of this site! GAP, or Gap Analysis Program is directed by the US Geological Survey. They coordinate with other agencies to create a database of information about the terrestrial and aquatic communities of plants and animals. This information is then mashed together and displayed on incredibly detailed maps.

Click on "National Land Cover View and Data" at lower left to begin. From the pull-down menu, you can choose to see a state, or a certain county within a state.

Set the level of detail you'd like to see on the map. Level 1 displays 8 different descriptions of the areas, such as "Riparian and wetland systems." Get more information on Level 2, which displays up to 43 different types of plant communities, such as "Deciduous dominated savannah and glade." Level 3 can indicate up to 590 plant communities if they are present.

The purpose of the project is to reveal those plant communities which are underprotected.  For example, a state agency or organization could see which plant communities exist in the state, and which of these types are adequately represented in protected areas and which are not. Once a vulnerable plant or animal community is identified, the next step is to locate examples of this type. These maps can inform management decisions and help states prioritize which areas to protect.

This example is from Reynolds County, not far from The Nature Conservancy's Grasshopper Hollow. 17 ecotypes are listed. Grasshopper Hollow is a fascinating area of fens, with some rare plants and animals. In 2000, a breeding population of the endangered Hine's Emerald dragonfly was discovered here. It's also known for rare amphibians and orchids.

I couldn't resist snapping a screenshot one of my favorite spots in Missouri. It's interesting to see the official description of the ecotype of camp where I spent 20 summers. They're right. It is pretty dry. The rainwater runs into sink holes and losing streams among the limestone ledges. I wrote about one of those special places in "Wild Hydrangea."

Investigate your favorite spot, and check out your own neighborhood too. Learning about the natural habitat of the area can inform your decisions about your own yard or community garden, giving clues to which plants to include in a native plant garden.