17 January 2008

Winter Wonderland

What a treat it was to wake up to almost a full half-inch of snow this morning! We of course had heard all about the impending "Winter Storm" all day on the radio and TV yesterday . . "Atlanta is getting snow right now, stay tuned to hear about school closings blah blah blah blah . . " I know nobody wants to hear the worn out old "When I was a kid" line on a day when they're stuck in the house with no place to take their school age kids . . but seriously, cancelling school for this? These My Little Ponies don't mind hanging out in the snow, so why can't the school kids suck it up and drag their butts to class? Teenagers, that's why. The school system sent home a letter yesterday trying to head off all of the typical snow-day questions posed by understandably annoyed parents who now have to figure out what to do with the kids while they go to work. The letter said that their "biggest concern was the high-school students who drive themselves to school and the possibility of a weather-related accident" and the subsequent lawsuits they'd surely face if they forced kids to come to school in such treachery. Let me tell you, as someone who vividly remembers the attitude I had as a teen driver, that's probably the only valid argument I've ever heard for why everything shuts down for a half inch of snow in the South.

A good example of why this reasoning works for me is a family trip we took one winter from our home in Dallas to the Queen Wilhelmina State Park in the Ouachita Mountain range in Arkansas. We piled in to my Honda Civic with summer tires and bad windshield wipers and drove to the top of this mountain through blinding snow and ice. When we got there it was so cold that all the resort's outdoor activities had been cancelled. So Jaime's boyfriend (separate story all together) and I decided to make our own activities in the parking lot. We fired up the car and went out to the mostly empty parking lot and proceeded to speed down the hill and yank the emergency brake handle up as we cranked the wheel, sending the 1900-pound car into uncontrollable spins. If memory serves, we had the windows open, the heat on full blast, and Metallica's Nothing Else Matters cranked to 11 on the radio. It never once crossed our minds that we should approach the icy roads with anything short of reckless abandon. So yeah, I think it's OK to cancel school today for freezing rain and snow.

Changing gears a little bit, this winter storm has proven to be great for our backyard bird activity. I expected a busy morning at the feeders and filled them all up last night after dinner. When it started getting light outside I noticed the tray feeder had filled up with snow, so I braved the freezing rain and went down to clear it out. I spread some millet on the ground below the tree and on the patio, hoping to bring some of the action closer to the house. Then I took a tip I'd read in a gardening book and put some stale bread pieces in an extra suet feeder as an additional offering for any new visitors the snow might flush out of the woods. Well it has all paid huge dividends, as Avery and I have been glued to the binoculars for at least an hour now. We got more than our usual compliment of Goldfinches and Mourning Doves, and the Cardinals that have now become daily visitors have brought friends. For the first time we had two females at the same time, where until today I'd only seen one. The wayward Yellow-rumped Warbler has been back this morning as well, dining on the suet and some of the millet on the ground. We were also visited by a White-throated Sparrow and my latest addition to the Big Year list, a Dark-Eyed Junco. Including the Eastern Towhee I spotted at the Nature Trail yesterday, that brings my total so far to almost 40. We're gonna skip the gym this morning and just hang out by the windows waiting to see if the nasty weather brings us any more backyard surprises. I might also spend a little time working on the recipe list, taking some of your suggestions to heart and getting them organized and rated for difficulty. Enjoy your day, we certainly will be enjoying ours!

14 January 2008

Reversal of Fortune

Mere minutes after posting this morning about my relatively quiet birding weekend Lily and I headed out the door to the gym. In the car I asked her if she wanted to go on a nature walk afterwards, to which she responded "No thank you Daddy." I have a hard time imposing my will on her when she's been so polite, so I came up with another idea. About the time I'd formulated my plan we were passing by the Coddle Creek Reservoir and I spotted an old friend. A Belted Kingfisher, the one I'd seen nearly every day in precisely the same spot before this month, appeared perched on a power line overlooking a shallow corner of the lake. I refer to him as an old friend because these birds' appearance gives them a bit of an inherent personality. To me, they are the "Kramer" of the bird kingdom. You remember Kramer, from Seinfeld, don't you? It's Michael Richards' character that was not only the most bizarre looking but also the most peculiar in terms of behavior that had ever been dreamed up. He had that hair that looked like a cross between Don King and Richard Simmons. And every time he opened his mouth to speak you expected something outrageous to come out. That's what the Kingfisher reminds me of. It's got that big spiky tuft of feathers on top of its head, an unusually large and heavy bill, and broad distinct stripes across the chest and neck. When it's looking for fish in the water it will routinely hover above the surface, neck and head bent down in the pike position, and make this unmistakable chittering noise before it twists around and plunges in after its prey. It's so bizarre, but at the same time so deliberate and effective, it's no wonder the Kingfisher is one of my favorite birds.

Also added to my Big Year list today was a bird I can now add to my Life List, having never seen it before. As I mentioned a few days ago, I received a Life List Diary as a part of a birthday gift last week. I dutifully sat and filled out as many species as I'd documented recently, going back as far as last August when I spent the majority of our vacation to upstate New York on crutches and looking for birds off of the front porch. Today was not a day I'd expected to add to it. We had stopped at the dollar store for some miscellany and were headed home when I chose, on a bit of a whim, to drive around the back of the building instead of straight for the exit. Behind this strip mall is a wooded wetland where a local birding guru had written recently was a great place to see certain species. In the summer I had visited to find numerous swallows, Red-winged Blackbirds, and myriad other birds flitting about. I'd been back this winter but to a very quiet place, with only White-throated Sparrows to be found. Today as we came around the end of the building I spotted two big white spots atop a tall tree and I knew immediately I was seeing something new. I hustled out of the car to get the binoculars out of the trunk and when I got the birds in focus I was shocked at the striking contrast. Not only was the bottom half of its back a brilliant white, but its head was completely red. The black patch on their back was like a neatly worn tuxedo jacket, setting off the two bright spots and creating a beautiful Red-headed Woodpecker. I watched as the two flew from tree to tree and then took off across the parking lot to the woods near the highway. I was thrilled that the day had those two birds in store for me. My mission this week will be to get back to the nature trail in the neighborhood and try to re-find the bird that eluded me on our last visit. I'll keep you posted.

Unexpected Visitor

No, this isn't a continuation of my rant about being able to spy on my blog visitors, as I'm sure you're happy to hear. Rather it's my promised weekly birding update, although a disappointing week it turned out to be. We made a trip down to Crowder's Mountain State Park yesterday in a vain attempt to catch some exercise and some winter bird activity in one fell swoop, but the colder than expected air and a crankier than expected toddler made it more of a race to get back to the car than a leisurely walk in the woods. I'm pretty sure we saw a small flock of Dark-eyed Juncos flitting about in the trees near the small lake, but with Lily wailing at full voice they did not stick around for long. My observation was against a brightly lit but cloudy sky, making it difficult not only to take photographs but also to stare for extended periods through binoculars. I decided not to add the Junco to my list, because I wanted to be absolutely sure. That location is most assuredly better suited to birding during migratory periods anyway, so we'll make another trip down there in March or April to see what there is to be seen.

On a positive note, I captured some shots of an unexpected visitor at the feeders this weekend, one that I've never heard of even being a feeder bird. It seems as though now that I've positively identified the Yellow-rumped Warbler on my Big Year list, they're making themselves visible to me more and more often. The one I ID'ed earlier this month at the nature trail was the first one I'd ever seen, and since then I'd seen two or three more in the same location and quite a few on the Mallard Creek Greenway when we went there last week. Then yesterday as I was watching the throngs of American Goldfinches devour their lunch of thistle seed from my feeders I spotted a flash of yellow on the ground below them. It was gone before I could retrieve the binoculars, but a half hour later she had returned and this time was nosing about in the sunflower seeds I'm offering in the tray feeder. She posed on the feeder just long enough for me to grab the camera and capture her visit for posterity, before first taking off to the top of the willow tree and then leaving out of sight. I don't know if warblers are common feeder birds, but it was a treat to see this curious female visit on an otherwise disappointing birding day. Later, to end the day on another positive note, the female Northern Cardinal that has been a daily visitor to the feeder spent at least ten minutes just perched atop the willow as I prepared dinner next to the window. I am certain she sensed my disappointment with the morning's hike and bestowed her presence outside that window as a token gesture. It was certainly appreciated.