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Whooping Cranes and Operation Migration in Winnebago County, IL

Posted on October 31st 2010 by Arthur in Birds, Nature

We got up early this morning to drive 2 hours west before sunrise to try and see the Whooping Cranes that are flying south with Operation Migration. They had been grounded for 12 days at their 5th stop, in Winnebago County Illinois, due to unfavorable weather. They never know if they’ll be able to take off until the very last minute, but we were lucky and got to see them today! :)

Whooping Cranes are North America’s tallest birds and they are highly endangered. In the 1940s there were just 15 birds left! Thanks to several conservation projects, there are now believed to be over 400 in the wild, but there are still years of work ahead before the bird can be removed from the endangered species list.

Reverse Reflection
Photo by FlappinMothra on Flickr

Since 2001, the non-profit organization Operation Migration has worked to reintroduce these beautiful birds by raising young cranes in isolation at their center in Wisconsin, and then flying them down to Florida with an ultralight aircraft in an effort to establish a new flyway east of the Mississippi River.

The birds are guided for 1,285 miles through seven states, from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka NWR in Florida. The long journey takes several months (see migration map). This year, 11 birds left Necedah National Wildlife Refuge on October 10th. Each morning the crew evaluates the weather as they can only fly if there is not too much wind. Until this morning they had been at the same place in northern Illinois for 12 days, due to the bad weather these last couple of weeks.

Spectators from about a dozen cars had gathered this morning on a road where the cranes would fly over shortly after takeoff. We could not see the camp from where we were standing, but they were not far. Around 7:30am two members of Operation Migration arrived to inform us about what was going on. They had radios so we could listen in on what the pilots were saying. Two of the aircraft went up first to check the wind at higher elevations. We saw them flying over the treetops.

After a few minutes we learned that they were going to try it (yah!). The two ultralights started to circle around in the distance. We could not see the birds, but after a short while we saw one of the planes emerge with the cranes following behind.


In the above picture you can see lead pilot Joe Duff is wearing a white suit
from top to toe, so that the birds don’t get used to humans.

There were ten cranes following the ultralight (an eleventh stayed behind and had to be transported in a crate). Nine on the left and one on the right. We read in the Field Journal on the organization’s website that later the birds divided perfectly with five on each wing. It was a beautiful sight and we were very lucky that we got to see them take off on our first trip out there.

Here’s a short video of what we saw:

If you’d like to support Operation Migration and the wonderful work that they do, you can make a donation here.

The following pictures are from last year’s migration. More can be found in Operation Migration’s Flickr photostream:

Img_3038_1

Img_3071_1

IMG_6384 - Day 43

om3.5

St. Marks 023

Fall Foliage in Wisconsin

Posted on October 18th 2010 by Arthur in Nature

We recently took a road trip up north to Bayfield, Wisconsin, for a family reunion. It was right in the peak of fall foliage, so we saw lots of beautifully colored trees.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin
View of Lake Superior from Madeleine Island

Wisconsin

Wisconsin

WisconsinView from Madeline Island Ferry of Bayfield WI

Wisconsin

Wisconsin

In Bayfield we found a very nice trail along the Lake Superior shoreline called the Brownstone Trail. The 2.5-mile trail uses an old railroad bed that was originally used for the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha Railroad in 1883. After it was abandoned in the 1970′s, the public started to use the railroad bed as a footpath.

Wisconsin
Brownstone Trail south of Bayfield WI

Wisconsin
Me at the Brownstone Trail

Annual Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Posted on October 16th 2010 by Arthur in Birds, Chicago, Nature

Many birds are migrating through the area these weeks. We get some extra birds in our backyard too, ones we don’t usually see. Today, on 16 October, we had a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. That’s the first time we see one of those in our yard since 16 October last year! Wow, I wonder if it’s the same one!

Ruby-crowned Kinglet- My Back yard- Peachtree City, GA
Photo by davidcreebirder

OMG, a hummingbird!

Posted on June 6th 2010 by Arthur in Birds, Life in America, Nature

Fourteen months after we put up our first hummingbird feeder, we have finally seen one in our backyard. Yeah! We first put up a feeder filled with delicious nectar (home-made: 1 part sugar, 3 parts water) on April 2nd, 2009. Unfortunately we never saw one all spring and summer last year. And to make matters worse: raccoons often stop by at night to knock down the hummingbird feeder. They’ve broken a few and we keep having to fill them up.

Early this morning, before leaving on a walk at Rollins Savanna, Amy was looking outside when she saw something small fly by our feeders. She didn’t know what it was, but it made a U-turn and flew back to our orange oriole feeder, which has bigger holes than the red hummingbird feeder (you can see both in the picture below). It was a hummer! We watched the female Ruby-throated Hummingbird for a few minutes, as she hovered above the hole, going back and forth to take a sip.

After this joyous moment we ran outside to put fresh nectar in both feeders and Amy put up her Wingscapes Birdcam to see if it the bird would come back later in the day. At the end of the day there were over 1,500 pictures on the camera!! Most of them were of an empty feeder; the cam takes pictures of movement and the feeder had been blowing in the wind all day. 1,499 of the pictures had nothing on it … but one did!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

It’s hard to see, but it looks like this one has a dark chin, which means that it may be a male. That would mean we had a whopping TWO hummingbirds in our yard today! :)

We’ll keep the cam on the hummingbird feeder for a while, now that we know there are some around here. Hopefully we’ll get better pictures one day.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Biggest Week in American Birding 2010

Posted on May 21st 2010 by Arthur in Birds, Life in America, Nature

Magee Marsh, a wildlife area in northern Ohio, is considered one of the best places in the United States to witness spring migration of neotropical birds. Lake Erie forms a natural barrier and birds pile up in large numbers as they rest and refuel before they continue their journey across the water. From mid-April through May thousands of birders flock down to the area to witness the event. A boardwalk (of approximately 0.8 miles) that runs through the marsh provides an excellent opportunity to watch these beautiful birds up close.

Magee Marsh boardwalk

This year, a birding festival named The Biggest Week in American Birding was organized for the first time. It was a huge success and hopefully will become an annual event. For 10 days there were many activities, like bus trips, guided walks, workshops and talks. We had the pleasure to attend the festival last week from Thursday to Sunday and stayed in nearby Port Clinton.

Magee Marsh sign

We spent a lot of time on the boardwalk, which was simply amazing. Birds flit around at eye level and they are apparently so tired and hungry from their long journey that they do not mind the people watching them up close. In our first minute on the boardwalk we spotted a Black-throated Blue Warbler right in front of us and we watched it for about 10 minutes hopping around just a few feet from our faces. This is a really good way to observe these birds and learn them. We had already seen quite a few warblers here in Illinois last year, but they are often in the tree tops, making them just small specks and hard to identify. In total we saw about two dozen different warblers at Magee Marsh and the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (which is right next door) and a hundred other species.

American Redstart
American Redstart

Prothonotary Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler on a nest right along the boardwalk

Friday was by far the best day bird-wise. On Thursday afternoon we were on a shore bird excursion, standing in a field watching some Black-bellied Plovers, when all of a sudden temperatures went up about 20 degrees and it became very windy. These southern winds brought a huge amount of birds to the area and Friday the warblers were everywhere.

Scarlet Tanager
Scarlet Tanager

Organizers of the festival and bird guides from Tropical Birding were tweeting rare sightings throughout the day, so we were often checking our iPhone for updates. The boardwalk is numbered, so it would say something like “Gold-winged Warbler at marker 25 MM boardwalk” and people who still hadn’t seen one of those would go and try to find it. At one time on Friday we were standing on the boardwalk when Chicago birder Eric Gyllenhaal passed us and told us to check our tweets. He was referring to:

Twitter: Kirtlands on Magee east beach 300 yards east of parking lot Kenn K

OMG, that’s from Kenn Kaufman, world-renowned birder and author, who just saw one of the rarest warblers nearby. No wonder people were running over to see it. But what were the chances that it would still be hanging around when we finally got there? We started walking toward the beach, about a mile away, and more and more people joined us. When we arrived at the end of the parking lot we saw a long line of people walking along the beach to the place where Kenn was standing. We ended up having great looks at the rare little warbler, and so did an estimated 4,000 other people that day. The bird stayed there almost all day (very cooperative!), just hopping around on some low bushes at eye level. People around us were overjoyed, many thanking Kenn for a life bird that they had been trying to see for years.

Flock of birders watching the Kirtland's Warbler on the beach near Magee Marsh
Flock of birders watching the Kirtland’s Warbler on the beach near Magee Marsh

Kirtland's Warbler on the beach near Magee Marsh
The rare Kirtland’s Warbler

In the four days we stayed in the area we spent a lot of time on the boardwalk, walked around Ottawa NWR and attended several workshops, presentations (including one by Alan Davies and Ruth Miller who, in 2008, broke the world record for most bird species seen in a year), and a bus trip to Oak Openings. We also attended a bird banding demonstration at Black Swamp Bird Observatory. Below you can see a Magnolia Warbler held by one of the banders. Check out these other bird banding pictures at BSBO that Amy took.

Magnolia Warbler
Magnolia Warbler handled by bird bander at Black Swamp Bird Observatory

If we get the chance we’ll definitely go to the Biggest Week again next year.
It was great. :)

Looking for injured birds in Chicago

Posted on April 15th 2010 by Arthur in Birds, Chicago, Nature

On the last few Thursdays we have been volunteering with the rescue and recovery of injured birds in downtown Chicago. We do this with Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation, which organizes rescue and recovery twice-yearly for 10 to 12 weeks during bird migration.

Chicago Skyline at Night
Chicago skyline via Flickr

Thousands of birds strike Chicago’s tall buildings every year as they migrate through the city. The stunned birds fall to the ground where they lie unconscious and risk being eaten by gulls, stepped on by pedestrians or dying from their injuries. Teams of volunteers go out every morning during migration to look for injured birds. They probably only find a fraction of the birds that hit, as many of them will fall on awnings, ledges and rooftops. Fortunately, about 90% of the birds rescued by volunteers from Flint Creek recover after treatment and can be released back into the wild. This is a great program.

Another city that I know of with a similar program is Toronto, where since 1993 FLAP volunteers have picked up over 44,000 birds from 162 species!

American Woodcock
Our team salvaged and rescued several American Woodcocks in the last few weeks
(photo via Flickr)

Today was our fifth time. We got up at 3:45am, left the house at 4:00am and arrived in Chicago at 5:00am. It is nice to see that many of the buildings in Chicago have their lights turned off during these migration months, which is an effort that has helped reduce bird strikes in the last few years. We drove and walked around Chicago’s downtown loop until about 7:30am today. It’s a large area to cover, so we run around a lot, with our large net, flashlight and backpack full of paper bags. Amy and I also carry walkie talkies which makes it easier to split up and cover different parts of a building and stay in contact.

Brown Creeper ... landed next to me today
Volunteers have also been finding a lot of Brown Creepers these last few weeks
(photo via Flickr)

We try to do the buildings that we have to check along the Chicago River before the sun comes up and the gulls come out, as they are known to snatch up injured birds right in front of rescue volunteers!! Flint Creek has provided us with maps of the City. There are over 125 buildings on the map marked in pink, and these are the buildings that we need to check. This is a huge area, so we’ve split the area up in three parts. Amy and I do one part and two other volunteers do the other areas.

Map of Chicago with rescue area

Flint Creek has two locations in the suburbs and a facility at Northerly Island. This last place is only a 10-minute drive from downtown (see map above), which is great for the birds! Timely treatment is important to survival rates and bringing them to this nearby location increases their chance of survival. After finishing our route we call our two teammates and check if they found anything. If they did we swing by their locations to pick up any bags with birds and then head to Northerly Island, where a triager takes care of them.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (photo via Flickr)

This morning we found a live Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (see above) and dead Palm Warbler (see below). Fortunately, we have not found so many birds yet on our days. I don’t know whether it’s still too early in the season, if it’s the weather or if we haven’t been looking in the right places. In any case I’m happy when we find less birds as that means more birds made it through Chicago without hitting buildings.

Palm Warbler (Yellow -Eastern form) - Peachtree City CBC. Dec '09
Palm Warbler (photo via Flickr)

For more information about rescue and recovery in Chicago see the Flint Creek website. For the Toronto program see FLAP.org.

Squirrel antics

Posted on April 7th 2010 by Amy in Funny, Nature, Weather

I can’t believe it, but the forecast for tomorrow is calling for a wintry mix – that means SNOW! Why, just last week our neighborhood squirrel was too hot to even stand up straight!

We watched this cutie scoot around on the ground for a while, foraging and eating while remaining flat on its stomach.

In the end she scampered off, so we think she was just trying to keep cool.

If you think this is cute, you won’t believe what I got to do last week – feed a baby squirrel!

Spring is finally here

Posted on March 11th 2010 by Arthur in Nature

Yesterday we had a late afternoon walk at Grant Woods, a forest preserve just a few minutes from where we live. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and at 60°F (16°C) it was the first time we didn’t have to wear our winter coats this year!

Grant Woods

There was still some snow on the ground, which caused an eery low fog to hang around the forest. It also made it very humid, with all that melting snow, and a challenge to walk through all the ice and mud. The bottom of our pants were soaking wet after finishing the 1.8 mile trail.

We saw a group of ten deer, which was a nice treat. They would all freeze each time we stopped walking. Look, they’re doing it right now:

Grant Woods

Lots of birds that weren’t here a few days ago were suddenly singing all around us. We saw American Robins, Grackles and heard Killdeer too, all birds that just arrived from the warmer south. Hundreds of male Red-winged Blackbirds were singing, which is always a welcome indication of the return of spring. I look forward to spending more time outside in the weeks and months ahead. :)

Grant Woods

Great Swamp Sanctuary, Walterboro SC

Posted on November 29th 2009 by Arthur in Birds, Forest Preserves, Nature

On our drive back from Florida we spent the night at a Days Inn in Walterboro, South Carolina. We learned that just 3 minutes from the hotel and the I-95 is a nature preserve called the Great Swamp Sanctuary. We checked it out the next morning and had a great walk.

Great Swamp Sanctuary in Walterboro South Carolina

At the end of a long straight trail is a swampy area with lots of bird-filled snags. We saw four different woodpeckers, including several Pileated Woodpeckers (picture below), Carolina Chickadee, Red-shouldered Hawk, Bluebird, Hermit Thrush and several other birds. The longer we stood there looking at the swamp, the more birds flew in from all around us.

Pileated Woodpecker at Great Swamp Sanctuary
Pileated Woodpecker

When walking back to the car we saw something fly across the way in front of us and land in a tree right next to the path. It was a Barred Owl … the first Barred Owl we had ever seen in the wild!

Barred Owl at Great Swamp Sanctuary

We had seen a few Barred Owls this year from Bird Rehabilitation centers, so we recognized it immediately. It’s also Amy’s favorite owl, so it was a thrill to see it in the wild. We watched it for a while. When we walked further and approached it, the owl calmly flew a bit further into the woods and landed on another tree, where we could look at it again. We had seen about 85 bird species on our trip to Florida, but this one was our favorite! What a great sighting. :)

Barred Owl at Great Swamp Sanctuary

Rockslide leads to BEARS!

Posted on November 24th 2009 by Arthur in Life in America, Nature, Travel

On our drive back from Florida last week we were happily driving through the smoky mountains in North Carolina on Interstate 40 when we saw one of those signs flashing that tell you to listen to an AM frequency for an important traffic message. From the radio we learned that a rock slide about 20 miles in front of us was blocking the highway! Travelers were urged to drive back to Asheville and take Route 26 to Kingsport and then Route 80 to Knoxville. OMG, that’s a 150 mile detour!

Looking at the map we noticed that we could also get off at the next exit and drive through Great Smoky Mountains National Park to get to the 80. That sounded like a lot more fun than 150 miles more highway.

Great Smoky Mountains NP (29)
The Great Smoky Mountains get their name from the natural fog that often hangs over the range. The fog is the result of warm humid air from the Gulf of Mexico that cools rapidly in the higher elevations of the Appalachian Mountains.

So we got off the highway and drove along a winding road through the towns of Maggie Valley (very cute) and Cherokee (wow, huge casinos!) toward the park. At Oconaluftee visitor center we made a short stop to look at the shop and get a stamp for my National Parks Passport.

My National Parks Passport with my stamp from Great Smoky Mountains National Park
My National Parks Passport with my new stamp

Half-way through the park we stopped at a look-out point on the pass where the Appalachian Trail crosses the road. We had some great views of the smokies and even saw a couple of birds like this American Robin and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. We also walked a tiny part of the Appalachian Trail, but only for a few hundred yards because it was getting dark. Maybe once we’ll walk the whole 2,178 miles.

Great Smoky Mountains NP (16)

Great Smoky Mountains NP (14)

Then, when least expected, it happened. We were driving down the mountain when all of a sudden there were a bunch of cars stopped on the side of a road. About a dozen people were outside their cars looking down at something. We got out of our car too and saw an American Black Bear walking through the forest. Whoa! It was the first wild bear we’d ever seen!

Here’s a neat video that Amy took:

A few miles down the road we encountered another group of people standing on the side of the road. We got out again and saw a second bear! This one was a bit larger and much closer to the road. At first we were looking into the distance and couldn’t find it, but then all of a sudden we noticed it was foraging through the leaves only about 30 feet away from us below the road! The bear only looked up every 30 seconds or so, to make sure we weren’t doing anything stupid, and then went on with his business.

Great Smoky Mountains NP (28)

Great Smoky Mountains NP (27)

The bears were both so relaxed, we figured they are used to tourists standing nearby … as long as they stay on the road. The first bear was on an inclined piece of land where the road curved. There were cars stopped at the top and we could also see some cars and people below staring at the bear. At one point we noticed that a man from down below had walked toward the bear in the forest and was hiding behind a tree to take pictures. The man was only about 30 feet away! When the man made a noise the bear looked up and she did not like the human in her territory. The man slowly backed up and managed to get back to the car. What an idiot. He must not watch The Colbert Report or he would have known that bears are the #1 Threat to America. ;)