24 December 2008

Christmas Eve Birds

Ok, so I lied about not posting much. Sue me. I felt compelled to share these shots of the only songbird currently in my back yard. Christmas Eve is no time to be alone, so where are his cohorts? My guess is that they're just a little more shy than he.

I give you the American Goldfinch, a beautiful splash of color on an otherwise bleak afternoon.


Thanks for posing sir, I needed that.

Procrastination

Talk about waiting until the last minute. Until today, Avery hadn't put pen to paper to create a true list for Santa. Clause, that is.

This morning, when directed to write the big man a note to be left with his plate of cookies, Ave saw fit to include in her greeting a quick synopsis of not only her wishes, but also of her behavior record for the year.

Dear Santa Clause,

We gave you these cookies for you and carrots for your raindeer. I have been a VERY very good girl this year. So has Lily. Here's a list of what I want for Christmas:

DS (Nintendo, that is)
Moter Scooter
some games for my DS (kinda looks like she wrote "ass")
A Magical Elf
Special Barbie Dolls
Some craft books
A video camera
Some stuffed animals

First of all, the kid just got a Wii for Christmas (a little early), you think she could back off the freakin' Nintendo DS. What is she, some sort of gamer? Pretty soon she's gonna have herself holed up in the basement playing World of Warcraft or something like that.

Second, what the hell is a magical elf? Like a real elf with magic powers that bakes cookies in a tree? I guess he could always have the top bunk . .

And my favorite, a video camera. I wonder if she was expecting BOTH this and the DS? Between the two of them she could drop out of school, start making documentaries on the perils of riding your Razor Scooter over loose gravel, and become a Tetris expert. Well, at least we'll save some money on college, right?

The close of the letter is just as priceless.

Its ok if you don't get what I want, you can surprize me! Please wright back (complete with a small box in which he should reply).
Talk about your all time backfires, this is what I get for perpetuating the whole Tooth Fairy shenanigans, eh? I look at it this way, at least she was polite, and I get to test out my left-handed writing skillz for the big man's reply.

You will likely not hear from me again for a few days, so please be safe and enjoy your time with family and friends this Christmas.

21 December 2008

A (potentially) Protracted Absence

I can't promise that I'll be around much to post for a while, it's just such a busy time right now. I hope you and everyone you love has a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

16 December 2008

07 December 2008

Meadowlarks, Creepers, and Wrens, oh my!

Avery and I spent the first half of the day birding 2 different locations. We first went out to the North end of Coddle Creek Reservoir to follow up a reported Loggerhead Shrike sighting from the day before. There's a big piece of property down one of the side roads that is notoriously good birding territory. In the Spring you can rely on this spot for Baltimore Orioles, and in the Fall and Winter it's typically good for Eastern Meadowlarks and the aforementioned shrikes. The meadowlarks were there as expected, I counted 10 in all. These birds are strikingly marked and their song is borderline ethereal. It's a treat to sit and watch them. I urge you to click on the photo to see him in all of his yellow glory.

Also on the property were these Swan Geese. They're listed in my field guide as a domestic species, but these were out in a pasture along with close to 100 Canada Geese just foraging away. There were probably 12 of them, and I thought they were pretty interesting looking. Certainly prettier than a Canada Goose . .

Alas, I did not positively identify a shrike. From a quarter of a mile away I thought I saw one on a very high power line perched next to a European Starling. In order to confirm it I would have to drive up the road and get out my scope. When I got out of the car the bird was still there, but by the time I got the scope set up it had flown away. A few minutes later I was back down the road watching these Eastern Bluebirds in a mixed flock with goldfinches and Golden-crowned Kinglets. I scanned the top rail of that fence in the distance and thought I saw the shrike perched near the adjacent horse pasture. Again I went for the scope, and again the bird flew away before I was able to get it set up. With another stop on our schedule I decided to give up for the time being and try for the shrike another time.

So, we pulled out and headed across town to Huntersville's Torrence Creek Greenway. It's an out-of-the-way little spot that's not overly popular with the local birding community, but it probably should be. As an added bonus, it happens to be Avery's favorite greenway because of the large climb-able rock formations that are found along the path. It's a great compromise, really. She climbs the rocks and explores while I wander off into the (nearby) woods to watch and photograph the abundant bird life. This was, surprisingly, the only Cardinal I saw today. Normally overwhelming in numbers here, they were conspicuously absent.

At some point within the last few months Avery started posing and smiling for the camera. Forgive me if I take full advantage of the opportunity.

The squirrels were loud and active today. This guy was shredding the bark on this fallen tree and didn't flinch when I got within 10 feet for this picture. I wish I knew what he was doing with the bark . . perhaps he was lining a nest. Whatever his purpose, he was entertaining to watch.

Very few of the trees still have their leaves. The ones that do certainly draw your eye to them.

This next photo is of one of the coolest little birds you'll ever see. It's a Brown Creeper, and if you couldn't see the bright white of his belly you likely couldn't see him at all. His head and back are so well camouflaged that he blends into the bark on the trees and almost disappears. Creepers are a completely unique species, although they're most closely related to nuthatches. This particular bird allowed me within 6 feet for photos, most of which were woefully out of focus due to the camera's inability to locate the bird as an object separate from the tree. Only a few shots were worth keeping.

And then there were wrens. Carolina Wrens, to be precise. And lots of them. This little guy wanted to play hide-and-seek with me, or at least that's how I interpreted it. He hid along the bank of the creek, under leaves and branches and inside this little burrow. I did my best to call him out, but apparently my best attempt at "tea-kettle-tea-kettle-tea-kettle" was woefully inadequate. Go figure.

I know this looks like just a picture of a bunch of twigs, but can you spot the bird? I'll give you a hint, its eye is giving off an eerie purple reflection. Go ahead, zoom in . . it's actually kinda creepy.

This location has always been a reliable spot for Hairy Woodpeckers. For whatever reason, Hairy Woodpeckers are much less congenial than the Downy Woodpeckers with which they share so many features. I think this may actually be the first photo I've ever been able to capture of a Hairy, although I can't be sure of that.

Also being coy today were about a half dozen or so Hermit Thrushes. They popped around in the underbrush most of the time, making only brief and partially-obscured appearances where the camera had any shot at capturing them. They're cute little birds, if not a bit nondescript.

Overall our morning was a lot of fun. Avery came across a "tepee" left behind on one of the rock formations by some other junior explorers, and it became her mission to attempt to construct one of her own. Theirs was pretty big, and with a few improvements could actually have provided a small amount of shelter to someone in need.

The same can not be said of the one we constructed, but that surely was not the point of the exercise.

A (mostly) wordless post

Because really, when you have pictures like this, why ruin them with words?

06 December 2008

Write this down.

Pen?

Check.

Paper?

Check.

Seated?

Check.

Prepared for groundbreaking insight?

Check.














Lily: Daddy, I was right and you was wrong.

Me: Is that so?

Lily: Yeah. Girls are right, and boys are wrong.

Which graduate program wants to step up and just give the girl her Ph.D? I mean really, will she ever be able to more accurately boil life down than she did just five short minutes ago? I think not. Case closed.

02 December 2008

Appointment TV

Most of the time when you think of appointment TV images of once-weekly or once-only shows come to mind. For me, 24 is the ultimate in appointment TV. They missed an entire season this year due to the writers' strike (poor TV writers and their piddly $225k/year salaries), and it was agony. When they aired the 2-hour season preview last week I could barely remember where the last season left off. I'm certain it will all come rushing back when Jack Bauer saves the new season's first innocent civilian from certain doom in the premier.

Lately we've (not the proverbial "we", we as in me and the kids) discovered a "new" show that we set aside time to watch. Every weeknight at 7:30 we meet on the couch for the newest installment of Wheel of Fortune.

Today I must have lost track of time, because at precisely 7:29 Avery came scampering into the living room and plopped herself down on the couch. Lily ran in behind her and said "I call the middle!" I was in the middle of feeding Mason and had to be gently reminded that it was "time to watch that one show we always watch at 7:30!" Apparently Avery briefly forgot the name of her favorite program.

So why, you ask, did we choose Wheel? Honestly . . because it's not Jeopardy. I prefer to be left in peace to watch Alex Trebek. But, when the wagers have been revealed for Final Jeopardy and a victor has been determined, I'm happy to have the girls' company for Pat and Vanna.

Avery's really starting to catch on to how the game is played. She's hip to some of the strategies . . solve early vs. spin to accumulate cash. She understands the different types of puzzles. Every time a "Before & After" puzzle comes up she says, "Oh, like Fruit Cocktail Dress right?" You got it. She hasn't solved her first puzzle yet, but I can't wait until she does.

When Mason was done eating, which he does facing the TV, I turned him around to burp him. Apparently he wishes to participate fully in the family's activities, as he literally craned his little neck around while I was whacking him on the back in an attempt to see the TV. Once he burped, I laid him down on the couch so he could catch the final puzzle. He was completely content to just hang out ad watch until the show was over, at which time he insisted on 2 more ounces of formula. Kinda like his version of dessert I suppose . . after all, he didn't get Advent Tree candy like the girls did.



So we've been thoroughly indulging in our appointment TV time the last few days. Sometimes the most lasting memories are created from silly little moments like these. Perhaps the girls will look back as fondly upon our Wheel of Fortune time as I do little moments from my childhood. Or, maybe they won't. Either way, it's good times.

Decorating The Christmas Tree

I can't believe this took us until December 1st to accomplish. Most years we've got the tree up by the day after Thanksgiving, and I'll be honest with you, I'm never exactly an enthusiastic participant in the exercise.

I really dislike the way Christmas and its corresponding "season" has turned into an endless sales blitz that lasts nearly 2 months. I swear, I saw Christmas decorations before October was over this year. I can see it for what it is, an attempt by retailers to push people into that "spend with reckless abandon" mode as early as possible in hopes that this year's sales figures will exceed last years.

I feel I'm often misunderstood in my disdain for the pre-Thanksgiving onslaught of Christmas music, etc. I guess it's possible, considering my typical method of expressing said disdain is an out-an-out grumpy disposition and snappy tone. It aggravates me to no end, and those who actually enjoy it can't be bothered to ask my point of view . . they'd rather just turn up their noses and label me "The Grinch". So be it, I have my reasons.

Don't get me wrong, I don't dislike Christmas. Not by a long shot. It's probably my second favorite holiday behind only Thanksgiving. But the reasons why I like it do not coincide with the reasons why it's jammed down our throats for 1/6 of the year.

Anyway, now that I got that little explanation out of the way, we can get back to the point of the post. We spent yesterday afternoon putting all of the ornaments on the tree. Mandi put the lights on in the morning before I left for work, and then when Lily got up from her nap we broke (literally and figuratively) out the ornaments and got to decorating.

To put it mildly, this was an exercise in patience. Lily LOVES fancy, shiny things, and her reaction to the sight of every individual ornament was priceless.

"Oooooh, Daddy, look! This one matches the other one!"


Avery, on the other hand, is primarily interested in being in charge. It doesn't matter how inconsequential the activity, if she's not exercising some semblance of power over the process she is just not into it.

Lily: "Ooh, Avery, look at this one, is it mine?"

Avery: "No, that one that says Lily and has your birth date on it is actually mine!"

Lily: "But I'm going to put it on the tree, so it's mine!"

Avery: "No, Lily, it's not. Now go stand over there while I put this ornament right where you were trying to put yours."

Mason had an entirely different set of emotions regarding the exercise. These two photos pretty much give you an idea of the two ends of his spectrum.

Which gives way to . .


Maybe it was just the silly hat he didn't like. Hard to say.

The festivities continued for a scant half hour until the entirety of our 6-foot Douglas Fir was adorned with Christmas cheer. And you know what? I actually enjoyed it. I enjoyed the time spent with my family, thinking about celebrating with them later this month, and I enjoyed the sights, sounds, and smells (it smells like a candle factory threw up in our house) of Christmas. I shall leave you with a tidbit from our favorite Christmastime background entertainment, Christmas Vacation.


27 November 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

We, especially Mason, want to wish everyone a very Happy Thanksgiving. Before you gorge yourself on turkey and mashed potatoes, take a few moments to reflect upon the things that you're truly thankful for. This season, above all, is about freedom, family, friends, and foundations. Enjoy your time with loved ones today and tell them, out loud, how thankful you are that they're a part of your life.

23 November 2008

Butter-butts

Winter tends to be a little slow around my back yard. Pigeons and Mourning Doves tend to dominate the landscape as well as the feeders. I feel silly paying top dollar for black oil sunflower seeds just to have them devoured in 20 minutes by a flock of unruly pigeons, but I do it nonetheless.

Last year I had one single Yellow-rumped Warbler that would stop by occasionally and visit my suet feeder. I assumed it was just one individual bird because I never saw more than one at a time. Who knows, maybe Butter-butts just have really good buffet-line manners and they were taking turns.

Anyway, this year word seems to have gotten around to the rest of the warblers that I serve a mean breakfast, because by 8:00 a.m. these days I have no less that 7 or 8 of them flitting about and generally just annoying the larger birds.

They're joined occasionally by a House Finch and a few American Goldfinches.


The Bluebirds are still hanging around too. That box is one that I made and gave to our neighbors. The birds check it out regularly, hopefully they'll nest there next Spring.

20 November 2008

You weren't trying to sleep, were you?

This is the sight I came home to this afternoon. Nothing says "Welcome Home" like a big pile of old shingles, eh?

We've been trying to get our roof replaced for some time now. Actually, we had the work scheduled to be done on the day we had Mason, but the weather didn't cooperate. So, instead of roofers hammering incessantly on an empty domicile, they hammered today on an occupied one. And they jumped. And they threw stuff. And they shoveled, and yelled, and ate lunch. Hey, at least they picked a nice day to get the work done. Carolina blue skies, mid '50's . . can't beat it.

When I asked the company's representative if we'd need to keep our cars out of the driveway to make room for his dumpster, he said "No, we'll just put it out on the street so you can park in the driveway." Apparently the crew didn't get that memo.


I'll be interested to see the condition of my lawn tomorrow morning. They left after the sun went down this afternoon, so I could not survey their work. Mandi laid down the law though. "If it ain't clean," she said, "they don't get their check." Preach on sister! I'm not so much concerned about the big stuff, such as those adorning these bushes. I'm more worried about the six thousand old nails I'm sure to find in the yard getting accidentally lodged into the sole of some non-shoe-wearing 8-year-old I know. Perhaps a quick glance at the status of her tetanus booster is in order . .

The guys on the crew seemed pretty good, although what would I know. They didn't accost Mandi before I got home, they didn't park 18 low-riders in front of the house while they did their work, and they did not utter any Spanish profanities when I came outside to take pictures. Yeah, I know them all . . I did work in restaurants, remember? All they said, as I took this last shot, was "Otro, otro!" Apparently they wanted me to take more pictures. I figured one was enough.

17 November 2008

Remember doing this?

I have a lot of memories from my childhood. Some are vivid, some are vague. Not surprisingly it's the memories that not only have pictures associated with them, but smells, sounds, tastes, and tactile sensations that tend to stand out.

I've said before that Fall is my favorite season of the year. Largely, that's because it suits who I am today. I don't think I've ever really thought about it in these terms, but many of my best and most vivid childhood memories are from the fall as well. I remember walking through the cemetery next to my grandparents' house in Pittsburgh in the fall, climbing leafless trees and coming back and throwing a football in their back yard with my dad. I remember Fall camping trips with my aunts, uncles and cousins. Most of all, I remember raking huge piles of fallen maple leaves in my friend Chris' front yard and then running down the hill to jump in them. Rake, run, repeat. I can't imagine anything I would have chosen to do instead had there been leaves available for collecting.

I imagine this might have been something like what we looked like all those years ago on Highland Avenue.



I love the fact that my kids choose to go outside and play. They weren't at Mandi's grandmother's house more than 10 minutes yesterday before they started clamoring to go outside and play. Everything seems a little bit more right in the world when kids choose to go pick flowers and run around when there's a perfectly good TV inside to watch. Kids come together in the outdoors. All the things that make them incompatible with each other when they're inside the four walls of a house seem to disappear when they step outside.



Avery and I went camping overnight Saturday too. The battery in my camera conked out after about an hour, so there aren't a ton of pictures to share. Sunday, after everyone else had gone home, we spent a few hours hiking around the park and just enjoying the beautiful Fall day. I really don't like cliches, but Avery is really in her element outside in the elements. We picked berries, wondered about fallen trees, scavenged for wild pecans, and generally just enjoyed our time together. This picture pretty much sums it all up . . Avery, in her pajamas and a warm coat, halfway up a tree.


And we got this Fall fun in just in the nick of time . . tomorrow's forecast high temperature is in the mid-40's. Yikes . . I guess I won't be wearing shorts to work.

10 November 2008

Look What I Found

This is an accidental post. I was looking through old digital photos, trying to find one in particular. I didn't find it, but I did find this one.


Isn't it funny how some things change so much while others don't change at all.

09 November 2008

It's Rare When Everyone Cooperates

Today, for the first time in a month, I slept in. Many of you would not consider 7:30 a.m. "sleeping in", but when 5:00 is the norm, anything post-dawn seems like bliss. The downside to the extra z's, this morning, was that by the time I got downstairs all of the coffee was gone. My plan was to head down to the nature trail and take a nice long walk with the camera and just see what I could see.

Not willing to eschew my daily caffeine, I decided a splurge at our local Starbucks was in order. As I made my way down the road to the grocery store where the Starbucks resides, I noticed this pair of Red-tailed Hawks hanging out in what is either a sweet gum or a persimmon tree. Way to narrow it down, eh? Anyway, their perch was down at the Southeast end of the trail, and their presence, I hoped, would be an omen for a very birdie morning.


Because I don't want to make what already promises to be a longish post all that much longer, I'll spare you the circumstances that prevented me from starting my walk on time. Suffice it to say that 2+ hours later and with Mason in tow, I embarked on my journey. I encourage you to click on and enlarge any of the photos. Well, except the ones of the stroller, that would just be gratuitous.


Since I took the pictures of it and everything, now seems like a fine time to introduce you to the latest and greatest addition to our growing family of strollers. Stroller number 5 in our collection (please, please don't ask) is a BOB Revolution. It's chocolate brown and blue, and it's very nice. It had better be, for the price tag. Anyway, this was its maiden voyage. Mason was very comfortable riding in the BOB, so much so that he spent almost the entire walk fast asleep. The BOB's front wheel can be set to swivel, making for a really effortless walk on the road and/or sidewalk, or it can be locked in place for more rough terrain like the nature trail. The car seat adapter works seamlessly and keeps Mason in a perfect posture. Thankfully my unannounced decision to "break 'er in" did not anger Mandi . . at least not outwardly. She's wanted a "good" jogging stroller for some time, but given her current non-jogging state of being I felt it acceptable to put this latest acquisition to work. To quote Cousin Eddie from Christmas Vacation, "It's a good lookin' vehicle, ain't it?"

Anyway, enough about that nonsense, let's talk about birds. Today I did not take the binoculars with me on my walk. My purpose was singular, to get some good photos of the birds that spend regular time on the nature trail this time of year. Whatever else I happened to capture would just be a bonus. My first subject of the day, as is customary, was a Northern Mockingbird. He was quietly mimicking one of the countless Song Sparrows that were flitting about in the brush below his tree.

A few hundred yards or so further down the trail and I got a glimpse of a soaring Red-tailed Hawk. There was another one close by, and because I was in the vicinity of the tree where the pair of red-tails was perched hours before, I assumed they were the same birds.


A good percentage of the plants and trees have finished shedding their leaves and summer colors, making the few remaining spots of color even more brilliant.


These berries won't be long for this world with the throngs of Mockingbirds that are still hanging around.

Hey, Mr. Cooper's Hawk, if you're really hungry I can take you to a big flock of pigeons that hang out on the top of my house.

I think these are sweet gum trees, although I could be completely wrong. Whatever they are, isn't the color pattern on them amazing? The leaves at the top are such a deep burgundy, which fades into a bright red and then a brilliant yellow at the bottom. There were literally dozens of them along the entire length of the trail.


Aren't teenagers great?

With Mason asleep in the BOB I took the opportunity to walk over to one of the few clearings in the trees and take a look down toward the bank of the river. At first I didn't see anything and I almost walked away, but then I heard something I didn't recognize. It wasn't a bird calling or singing, but rather the sound of beating wings. Certain birds, like pigeons, Mourning Doves, and hummingbirds have "signature" sounds associated with their beating wings. This, however was none of those. It almost sounded like a distant helicopter, but faster. I looked and looked and still saw nothing. Then, as if out of nowhere, he was there staring up at me. In all it was a group of about twelve Cedar Waxwings, drinking from the river and turning over leaves to eat what waited beneath. These are one of my favorite birds.



You can't see his face in this photo, but this Eastern Bluebird was happy to pose for a picture today. This tree is a favorite spot for them and the mockingbirds. For those not versed, behind him is what's known as a "Carolina Blue" sky.


I really like these cattails. There are 5 or 6 different really large stands of them throughout the trail in the wetland areas. A nice stiff breeze blew the seeds out of some of them and it almost looked like a snow storm.

A little pishing and the throngs of Song Sparrows taking cover at the bottom of the cattails would hop around and eventually perch atop one of them, usually posing long enough for a photo.

There were quite a few other families out walking the trail today. I can't say that I blame them, as the conditions were perfect. 62 degrees, no humidity, and only a few wispy scattered clouds. An impeccable Fall day in the Carolinas.

If you look closely in the middle of this next shot you'll see what I am assuming is a Red-tailed Hawk keeping watch over one of the ponds. He flew out a number of times to readjust his perch, but I never saw him go after prey. If anyone wants to challenge my ID I'm open to suggestions . . this isn't where I'd expect to see a Red-tail, more likely the habitat of a Cooper's.

Like this one, which was flying overhead very close to where the one above was perched.


Further down, these 2 dogs announced their discontent with my presence. That, or maybe they were just saying "hi" in their loudest, most voracious voice.


The Great Blue Heron that frequents the trail made an appearance. He posed nicely for close-ups.

Another bush covered with surprisingly not-yet-eaten berries. I'm sure it won't be long.

Another Song Sparrow decided to pose for me . . it's so unusual for so many birds to cooperate like they were today. Maybe they liked the BOB!

I thought it odd that I didn't see a single Ruby-crowned Kinglet at any point on the trail, as the last time I went down there they were ubiquitous. Mason, BOB, and I ascended the hill at the end of the trail started up the sidewalk toward home. Then, at the end of the fence, in the farthest corner of the area I'd consider part of the trail, I saw a tiny bird flitting about in a tree. We paused, he posed, and I shot.

I couldn't pass up this shot of this gorgeous Golden Retriever, relaxing lazily in the afternoon sun. He took notice of us, rose up to this posture so I could get the shot, and then promptly lay back down for his nap. He picked a great day for it.