Saturday, January 26, 2013

Illinois back yard and neighborhood birds

These past two weeks in Illinois have flown by as we joined our two granddaughters (aged 7 and 8) to care for both of their injured parents. We have learned quite a bit about the challenges faced by folks who have limited mobility.They are confined to the ground floor of their home and have rented side-by-side hospital beds that occupy their living room. Simple things, like climbing up steps, getting into an auto, reaching across the counter-tops or even the bottom shelf of the cabinets can be difficult or impossible. Doorways are too small for wheelchairs and curbs are too high. 

Since our daughter and son-in-law's injuries were obviously unplanned they left tasks undone upstairs, and needed help when they suddenly realized that an essential item remained on the second floor. They have retained their good humor and we have not found it difficult to be with them 24/7. Her husband was injured in early November and yesterday the doctor removed his cast and said he has finally healed enough from the surgery to advance to a walker. Today he took his first shower in almost 3 months! Our daughter still has a month of non-weight bearing but can move around in a wheelchair and walker. We sleep in a bedroom upstairs, only a cell phone call away, but their only nighttime calls for assistance have been for us to let the dogs out.

The first week I did get away for about an hour after dropping the kids off at school. Seeking Snow Buntings, pipits and longspurs, I rode around several large cornfields. They were either plowed under or in stubble, well picked over by Canada Geese. Although I did not see my target birds, I was pleased to find a rather large flock of American Tree Sparrows foraging for left-over kernels.

American Tree Sparrows 2-20130110

American Tree Sparrows 5-20130110

On my way back I saw a Red-tailed Hawk roosting atop a telephone pole. As I pressed the shutter it launched into flight.

Red-tailed Hawk in flight 20130110

Our older granddaughter is quite knowledgeable about birds. She kept asking to go on a bird walk, but our other duties interfered. One afternoon Mary Lou and I took the girls directly from school to a local park. It was bitter cold but instead of hiking they enjoyed playing on the swings and slides while I explored the adjacent thickets. Mary Lou retreated to the warmth of the car, from which she could watch them at play.

I found a Dark-eyed Junco that had plumage characteristic of the more western Oregon subspecies-- dark head sharply contrasting with a brown back and light underparts.

Dark-eyed Oregon Junco 20130119

The highlight of our outing with the children is best described in the words of the 8 year old, who typed this comment under my photo that was posted in FLICKR. She did this all herself and only got help from her mom to spell "surprisingly."

When we were coming home from Jones Meadow Park we found a Red-tail on a wire. Gramps pulled over and got his camera from the trunk. He took more pictures till he got so close he had to turn his camera sideways! Then came the flash. Surprisingly, the Red-tail didn't fly away! My grandma and sister suggested that it might fly around him and bite his butt! After what seemed like a million years, he came back. We told him what we were talking about. All he said was,''I got some really good shots''.

Red-tailed Hawk 20130119

Red-tailed Hawk 2-20130119

Red-tailed Hawk 4-20130119

We have been kept busy transporting the girls to and from school and other events, running errands and taking the patients for medical appointments. In between there has been relatively little computer face time and even less time to get outdoors. My "bird hikes" consist mostly of walking out to fill the backyard bird feeder. The girls are alert to point out avian visitors, especially the colorful kind.

I try to get outside and shoot from the back deck, but many of my photos are fuzzy as they were taken through the kitchen window.

House Sparrows are the most common visitors. We do not have any in our Florida back yard, so they are a treat to see.

House Sparrow male 2-20130115

The Dark-eyed Junco migrates in from the north but rarely wanders into southern Florida. This is a male of the Slate-colored subspecies.

Dark-eyed Junco 2-20130115

The female junco exhibits more brown in her plumage.

Dark-eyed Junco female 20130115

House Finches are fairly common.

House Finch pair 20130115

Favored subject are the Northern Cardinals.

Northern Cardinal 20130115

Northern Cardinal female 20130115

Their back yard blends into a small prairie preserve, about 10 acres in size. It is patrolled regularly by a Northern Harrier. Usually by the time the children see it flying back and forth and I run for my camera it is too late for a photo. On my first attempt it was 10 degrees (F) or -12.2 (C). The harrier had landed just outside their back fence and posed nicely. I crept out into the cold for great views, but my camera lens quickly fogged up and my wonderful photo op was a disaster. Within a few seconds the glass was almost opaque.

Our granddaughters could not wait to see the images on the screen of my laptop. They were horrible, but the girls helped me crop and edit them with Picasa. To my surprise, the the fog imparted a pleasant softness to the images of the harrier, making them look almost like watercolors.

Northern Harrier 4-20130114

Northern Harrier 2-20130114

Northern Harrier 20130114

Northern Harrier 3-20130114

Heading back to Florida for a while-- look forward to the 72-85 degree temperature spread.
Here is the Illinois kitchen thermometer this week:

Clock temperature minus 2 20130122 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Whooping Cranes venture into South Florida

The new year got off to an exciting start. There were surprises, not all of them pleasant.

First, our local Bald Eagles have hatched out at least one chick, now visible to many enthralled nest-watchers..

You may remember (as related in this earlier post) that in early November our son-in-law in Illinois suffered serious injuries to both legs in a fall from a tree stand while hunting deer in North Carolina. He was transported back home to Illinois and required extensive surgery. Now he is wheelchair bound but healing well and should be walking soon. One of his close relatives in the Miami area died suddenly during the first week of January and since he is unable to travel we planned to represent his family at the wake and funeral service.

On Saturday, January 5 my friend and neighbor Scott, who regularly walks in our local wetlands area, Tweeted me with a photo taken by his daughter of a white crane, at the northern end of our local south Florida birding patch. On first glance I thought it might be an albino Sandhill Crane, but then realized that it was a juvenile Whooping Crane. The eBird data base contains no historical records of Whooping Crane sightings in either Broward County or Miami-Dade.

The bird was in an area in which groups of off-road vehicle drivers assemble on weekend nights and conduct races. I was concerned that the crane could be disturbed. Scott was unavailable and Mary Lou and I had obligations that kept us from going out into the patch, so I posted the sighting on the Tropical Audubon Society Bird Board with a request that someone come out to monitor and help protect the crane. Several birders responded, and some of the ORV riders told them that they had been seeing TWO of the cranes in the area just north of our patch since December 22!

The next morning we got out before sunrise and walked about a mile and a half, all the way north out of Miramar into the City of Pembroke Pines. After taking a few steps across the city limits I sighted two white dots in a wet prairie about a half mile away. We had to detour along a city street to avoid entering private land, but sure enough, we found the two Whooping Cranes.

Whooping Cranes 2012 15 Cypress male and 13 Tussock female 20130106

We learned from the website of the WHOOPING CRANE EASTERN PARTNERSHIP (WCEP) that these two first year Whooping Cranes (# 2012-13 and 2012-15) were among the six "Direct Autumn Release" (DAR) birds that migrated without the assistance of an ultralight aircraft. (See VIDEO and additional information at the end of this post). The six cranes, numbered 12 through 17, are identified by the arrangement of colored bands and transmitters on their left and right legs respectively.

Cranes # 12 13 15 16 and 17 migrated south in record time. According to WCEP, they departed from the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin on 31 October. Satellite information indicated roost locations in Lawrence County, Indiana, on 31 October, then in Chester County, South Carolina, on 2 and 3 November where all five were also visually confirmed. Next they were located at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, Charleston County, South Carolina, on 4 November, and in Glynn County, Georgia on 5 November.

Remarkably, in six days they had flown about 1200 miles unassisted, from Wisconsin to Clay County, Florida, by 6 November. They moved to Manatee County, Florida, on 7 November and into Everglades National Park, Monroe County, Florida, on 8 November and in Hendry County, Florida, on 9 November.

Cranes # 12, 16 and 17 remained in Hendry County, Florida, at least through January 4, 2013 but they were no longer together. On 28 December, # 12 was reported as having a possible leg injury.

The remaining crane #14 began migration with Sandhill Cranes from the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge more than three weeks behind the other five, on 23 November. Only 17 days later on 9 December, Crane # 14 was reported with sandhill cranes in Volusia County, Florida, where he remains.

These two cranes # 13 and 15 moved from their Hendry County location to Broward County, Florida, on 22 December.

Crane # 15, the one first photographed by my neighbor Scott is a male named Cypress. His band color pattern from top to bottom: left leg has a White/Green transmitter with antenna, and right leg has Green/Red/White bands:

Whooping Crane 15-12 Cypress male 20130106

Whooping Crane 15-12 Cypress 20130106

The other is Crane # 13, a female named Tussock. Her band color pattern from top to bottom: left leg has a Red/White transmitter with antenna, and right leg has a White/Green transmitter with antenna:

Whooping Crane 13-12 Tussock female with 2 transmitters 20130106

Whooping Crane 13-12 Tussock female 20130106

I hoped to personally document their presence on our patch, so on Monday Mary Lou and I again went out before sunrise and walked northward the entire length of the patch. No cranes! She was not interested in slogging the muddy trails and returned home, while I hiked an additional three miles along several paths that border the wetlands and lake.

Not finding the cranes, I headed for home. Just after entering our patch I ran into Brian Monk, another birder who was also searching for the cranes. I casually scanned the open areas with binoculars, and suddenly spotted one of the cranes. It was nearly a quarter of a mile away (actually 0.21 mile according to Google Earth), so my photo that documents the sighting is quite fuzzy. This is the male:

Whooping Crane 2012-15 male Cypress 20130107

As we continued south along the lake, Brian saw a white speck on the opposite shore, about 0.43 mile away. He gets credit for my opportunity to photograph the female:

Whooping Crane 2012-13 female Tussock 20130107

Brian and I were exploring an area where I saw both Swamp and Savannah Sparrows last week when Mary Lou called me at about 11:30 AM with news that our daughter in Illinois had fallen while carrying their Christmas tree down the stairs and had fractured bones in her ankle. Her husband is wheelchair-bound and she would need surgery. 

We were needed there to help them care for themselves and our two 7- and 8-year old granddaughters (not to mention two huge Tibetan Mastiffs and two large salt-water fish tanks). I rushed home and quickly made reservations. We packed and departed on a plane to Chicago at 3:30 PM, a quick transition from sub-tropical 84 degrees (F) to 12 degrees and blowing snow! 

Here they are, on Facebook. His open reductions required a metal plate, 10 screws, two pins and a cadaver bone transplant; She needed 13 screws, one metal plate, two pins, a washer and a wire, between them enough to keep a hardware store in business!

By the way, Whooping Cranes in this population are not "countable" for listing purposes as officially established in the American Birding Association (ABA) area. Of course, I like to watch pre-season exhibition football, basketball  and baseball, and I enjoy the games even though they don't "count."

Best viewed full-screen size.

Whooping Crane Reintroduction

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), of which the International Crane Foundation (ICF) is a founding member. presently operates two projects to restore a migratory Whooping Crane population in the eastern USA.  

The Ultralight-led Migration Project that began in 2001 utilizes eggs from captive breeding centers that are hatched at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. The young cranes are later transferred to Wisconsin and trained to follow ultralight craft. After making their first migration to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge on Florida's west coast, they find their way back to Wisconsin alone and continue to migrate back and forth unassisted. 

A second method, called the Direct Autumn Release (DAR), was started in 2005. These cranes are raised by the ICF using attendants dressed in crane costumes. Kept from human contact, they are housed with adult Whooping Cranes to assure that they imprint properly. Before fledging, they are transferred to Wisconsin and finally to the release point at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. They learn to fly south by following the older cranes. Radio and satellite telemetry allow them to be tracked by ICF and US Fish & Wildlife Service 

For more information, visit

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Snipe hunt

I must admit that during the winter I'm always looking for snipe in our local South Florida birding patch. Up until now I had only gotten fleeting glimpses of single birds, usually flying away from almost underfoot at breakneck speed. Taken from a distance in poor light, this photo shows the characteristic shape and bold vertical markings on the sides of the breast of a Wilson's Snipe.

Wilsons Snipe 20111020

I came to believe that there is no such creature as a snipe that sits in one place and poses for the camera. So frustrating. Was I being victimized?

As a Boy Scout tenderfoot, I learned the hard way about "snipe hunts."

Urban Dictionary: "You've never heard of snipe hunting? Dude we should go this weekend."

A North American prank and rite of passage wherein older adolescents take younger boys into the wilderness for the supposed purpose of “snipe hunting.” Snipes are an imaginary game bird purported to resemble quails or pheasants or what have you (the fictional snipe is not to be confused with the extant North American shorebird of that same name). Snipe hunts take place on moonless nights; the victims are provided burlap bags with which to catch the birds, while the conspirators spot them with flashlights. The conspirators make birdcalls, through rocks in the bushes, and urgently cry out “snipe” to make the victims believe that there are actually birds in the area. The victims don’t want to be the only one who can’t see the imaginary birds, so they claim to have seen them also. Pretty soon the victims have convinced each other they are surrounded by snipes and proceed to run about foolishly in search of the non-existent birds.

A recent encounter resulted in my first photo of one on the ground in our patch. I had flushed it while walking out on a small peninsula. It flew some 50 yards to an area of shoreline that was rimmed by high grasses. There had been no time for a photo, and I scanned with binoculars but could not find the bird. I took a single photo of the area where it landed, just to remember the experience. Back home I displayed it on the computer screen.

"Where's Waldo?"

Couldn't find the snipe 20121202

Look closely at the enlarged image, and note how its cryptic plumage blends with the background.

Wilson's Snipe found 20121202

Not a very satisfying record, but I added it to my collection of bird species photgraphed on my patch. This past week my luck changed. My "burlap bag" is now full and brimming!

One morning last week Mary Lou and I set out into our local wetlands patch about 15 minutes before sunrise. It was overcast at first, and darker than usual. As we passed along the lake, I caught movement at the near shore. The silouhette of a bird contrasted with the soft glare of the water's surface.

Despite having the ISO cranked up to 3200, I obtained only a grainy image of the bird's head, but its markings confirmed that it was a snipe! While Mary Lou continued her "power walk" another mile into the wetlands area, I remained at the spot, waiting for better light. On her way back she stopped for a while, but the bird had hardly moved and was hidden in the vegetation.

Finally my patience was rewarded. After almost an hour of getting only tantalizing shadows, a snipe walked out into the open, acting as if I were not even there!

Wilson's Snipe 20130102

It walked out into the water...

Wilson's Snipe 2-20130102

...took a bath...

Wilson's Snipe 3-20130102

...and preened its feathers.

Wilson's Snipe 4-20130102

To my surprise, three more snipes appeared, as if out of nowhere.

Wilson's Snipe 5-20130102

This short video illustrates the feeding behavior of the Wilson's Snipes.



Wilson's Snipe from Ken Schneider on Vimeo.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Shape-shifting Green Heron

Last season, in the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron rookery along a canal at the north end of the wetlands birding patch next to our south Florida home, a pair of Green Herons selected a secluded spot for their nest. 

Unfortunately, this tree, which extends over the water, had been treated with herbicides by the agency that maintains the canals, and by the time the eggs hatched almost all the leaves fell off to expose the nest. Movie time! 

These brief clips illustrate some interesting behaviors and are best viewed in HD, full screen size. Pardon the shakiness, as they are taken with my hand-held DSLR camera with a telescopic lens, from about 30 feet across  from the nest.

The Green Herons are excellent parents. Here a female feeds her tiny chicks, about 3-5 days old. At the time, we only counted three, as the youngest one was not yet visible (April 15, 2012).

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The four chicks have grown quite a bit over the next 3 days. They are now 7-9 days old. Perhaps not unexpectedly in view of the flimsy perches, the smallest chick disappeared the next day, following a heavy thunderstorm (April 19, 2012).

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Now on April 22, the chicks are 10-12 days old. This remarkable sequence shows the protective behavior of the male, who had fed the chicks just moments before I started this video. The female then flew in with more food, but the ravenous appetite of the chicks placed them in danger. The male, sensing their predicament, flew in to solve the problem. See how he did it.

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The Green Heron can be described as a compact little neck-less ball of feathers...

Green Heron 2-20120113

...or a spindle-shaped pointed object.

Green Heron 2-20120124

But where did that neck come from?

Green Heron 4-20120124

Sometimes it looks like almost any other heron, though its legs are short and its neck is a bit fat.

Green Heron 5-20121211  

Then, extending its neck full length, it becomes almost snake-like...

Green Heron 8-20121211 

 ...and raises a handsome crest.  

Green Heron 7-20121211

Their color-- How did they ever get the name of "Green?" Sometimes they look as dark as crows.

Green Heron 20090522

The immature birds have streaked underparts and can be quite dark in color.

Green Heron in flight 20120717

Here is an adult. Why, I do see a bit of green in there!

Green Heron 20100712

Usually a loner, it is unusual to see several in a flock. These are immature birds. perhaps some are siblings.

Green Herons five 20120731

Those wings-- they are surprisingly long and seem to have so many more feathers than expected.

Green Heron taking flight  (view large) 20120410

During breeding season, the male does have respectable plumes.

Green Heron culvert nest male 20120413