Monday, January 28, 2008

Family Travels

I've got too much to do today to write here, but I thought I'd post some pictures from my recent sojourns to Cincinnati and Whidbey Island.  This was family visit time, though I'm sorry to say I didn't see everybody I would have liked to (my apologies, Beth, Peg, Dave) and didn't bring a camera on some trips (sorry Brad, Jim and Sue), but here are some representative shots of myself, my mom and Terry, my Dad and Lisa, Esme, Franny, Gabby, Sonja and Nick, and one unnamed Peregrine Falcon.  I haven't figured out yet to label individual pictures with their own comments on blogspot.  Of course, I haven't really tried to figure it out.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Cincinnati Birds

I'm on vacation now in Cincinnati, visiting with my folks and my sister Esme.  I tend to spend a lot of down time when visiting with family, reading and eating and chatting and strumming a guitar or two, maybe a movie as well.  I have gotten out once or twice, however; once to the Newport Aquarium where the highlight was a Pacific Giant Octopus.  These are truly amazing creatures, and no words could do them justice.  I hope someday I can see one in the wild. There is a great sequence in the book Island of the Blue Dolphins where the girl has a long battle of wills with an octopus in the shallows and tidepools of her island (one of the channel islands of California).  

There was also a requisite trip for Cincinnati Chili, and this year instead of Skyline we made the trek to Camp Washington Chili.  The basic template was the same, but the sauce was just a tad spicier and richer, I think, and the little oyster crackers were smaller (but of course you could have as many as you want).  Frank's Hot Sauce at the tables.  Now I can go a couple more months without cravings for this distinctive american treat.  

I've also discovered a very productive spot to go birding, a newish park called Armleder Park, along the west bank of the Little Miami River just a bit above its confluence with the Ohio. Near Lunken Airport.  It's a mix of recreational fields, dog park, bike trail, riverbank and fields managed for wildlife and nesting birds.  I discovered the website which has a log of local sightings and noticed that short-eared owls were dependably seen there.  These are amongst my favorite birds (as are most owls, and I am not alone in this) and so I made sure to make it down there.  I've gone twice now, and both times were very enjoyable and productive, with the focus on raptors.  5 species - short-eared owl, red-tailed hawk, american kestrel, northern harrier, and cooper's hawk.  In particular, the owls and harriers provided considerable drama.  The first day, we watched the owl snag a nice vole or mouse only to have the harrier attack and snatch the prize away in mid-air.  Today, the harrier was cruising along and suddenly dove into the grasses, rousting an owl into the air.  The owl was then mobbed by a large group of crows, twenty or so, for several minutes as the owl flew higher and higher in tight circles.  Finally the crows drifted away, one by one, and the owl stayed up in the air at considerable height for some time before descending.  I was thinking about how I'd never really heard of or seen owls fly so high in the air, and then I was wondering if the crows are likely to abandon their attack as the owl goes higher and higher, or what exactly was going on...mobbing behavior is so interesting and mysterious.  

Anyway, a great show (and apparently quite dependable) for such a smallish park on the outskirts of Cincinnati.  If only I could find the fox sparrows, merlin and red-headed woodpecker at Spring Grove Cemetery.  Next week, on to Whidbey Island in Puget Sound.  More birds await, as well as my two nieces, Gabriella and Sonja.  

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Hawks, Shrikes, and Razorbills, Oh My!

These are pictures of a Rough-legged hawk and a razorbill. The hawk is one of three 'winter specialties' of Plum Island. The other two are the Northern Shrike and the Snowy Owl (I will discuss the razorbill later). All three of these are uncommon or rare winter visitors around here, but found dependably and regularly on Plum Island. By the way, I did not take these pictures, I wish I had. I did try to take a picture of a rough-legged this morning, with my phone camera through my spotting scope, but that was quite the exercise in futility.

I was lucky enough to catch all three winter specialties this morning, in droves. Three shrikes, two snowy owls - well, probably the same one in two different spots - and at least four Rough-legged hawks. I went out with a group outing sponsored by the Brookline Bird Club. As I've said before a lot of good eyes can make for some great birding.

Despite our luck with the shrike, owl and hawk, the highlight was certainly the seawatch at the north end of the refuge. It was calm this morning, with very little wind. The water was still, not as glass, but a gentle, even ripple that spread out to the horizon. Landward the sky was overcast but over the sea it was bright with warm, yellow highlights bordering the low clouds.

The must have been a lot, I mean a lot, of fish in the water. As we walked over the last dune we could see large, roiling masses of gulls and seabirds spread here and there, and other scattered individuals or small groups everywhere else. Best of all, for me, was the presence of probably one - one hundred and fifty razorbills, a stout black-and-white diving bird with a highly distinctive thick, curved wedge of a beak. I've only seen these before either on the far horizon (where I can barely make a reliable identification) or a very quick flyby. These were actively foraging in tight groups, pretty close to shore (one hundred yards?) where I could easily make out their markings and the shape of their bill. They swam and dove right amids big groups of gulls and red-breasted mergansers, usually moving in a thick line, steadily moving forward until they found an exceptionally rich spot. Neat birds. Also scattered around were Common Loons, Red-necked Loons, Horned Grebes, Red-necked Grebes, White-winged scoters, Black Scoters...I watched one Horned grebe just a few yards out from shore wrestling with a long, thin, silver fish.

Other highlights? Nothing in particular. Eventually, I got cold and hungry. Time marches on. Several others remained to continue prowling the marsh, thickets and beaches. I know I've said this before, but the range of devotion and fanaticism that people take to their hobbies always fascinates me. Many of my friends and family would consider me to be an unusually passionate, devoted and knowledgable birder. And to the average person, I am. But I often run into people who far surpass me, people who are out almost every day, or at least every weekend, virtually all day. Who obsessively follow what's being spotted around the state and will make sure to travel anywhere something unusual is being seen.

Anyway, it's fun.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Goodbye, Grandma

Here in Boston we've just gone through a mini-deep freeze; I think it was 10 degrees fahrenheit or less all day yesterday and colder than that the night before. Last night was the same. I tossed and turned all evening because my street kept losing power, and the streetlights would go on and off and my apartments furnace would stop blowing, then kick in, then get the picture. So I tried to grab a little more sleep but finally gave it up to take a walk and do a little birding. I thought it would be okay because I heard the radio say that it would be much warmer (in the high 20's) today but I was too sleepy to think it through, and it was around 12 degrees. It was cold, cold, cold. I just went to a local park in Newton, Nahanton Park, and really saw nothing but a few unhappy mockingbirds and blue jays. Maybe a few crows and gulls as well, and something I half-persuaded myself was a juvenile northern shrike but now am fairly sure that it was just a robin. The things your mind can persuade you into believing! Anyway, after a half-hour my chin was numb and my feet were also coming along quite nicely and I went in to work. I should have stayed in to work on my book, but I was so bleary from the lack of sleep that I just couldn't face it.

I just got back a few days ago from South Bend, Indiana, where my Grandmother Mary Breden passed away on December 26th. I don't really know what to say; I would like to write something special, but I keep hearing the tribute my sister Meghan wrote when I start thinking about it. Please visit her blog at to read it. For myself, a lot of different things have been going through my head. Grief that she's passed on, sadness that I didn't really get to say goodbye, a wish that I'd seen more of her the last few years, but also a stream of wonderful memories and the presence of her love, which I still feel. And in visiting with my mom, my aunt and my cousins, and in talking with my sisters, I've also found myself, happily, still learning new things about her; its amazing to find someone who has passed on still growing as a person before your eyes. She was 92 years old and had a full life, rich in experience, giving, and love. In particular, I'm so pleased (and thankful) that she spent her last years with so many wonderful and attentive daughters, grandchildren and greatgrandchildren.

I love you, Grandma! (And I miss you.)

Love to all,

ps A special message for Seth: See you later, Fishbulb! (you're the fishbulb!)