Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Birds, Beavers and Cats - some random notes

I took a long walk this morning along an old railroad trail along the Connecticut River. The weather was gorgeous, blue skies, bright sun, leaves turning yellow and crimson red. The air was filled with the honking of migrating flocks of geese. During the walk I saw and heard about 50 Blue Jays, the air ringing with their harsh cries as they were flying from tree to tree, gathering to continue their southward journey.

Eastern Phoebes were fluttering up from their perches, making a sweep close to the ground and over the bushes and settling down again.

Yellow-rumped "Myrtle" Warblers were flitting in and out of view.

High up on a bluff above the CT River I saw a tree that seemed to have been cut by a beaver just a day or so ago. Fresh white wood chips lying around the base but there was no stream or pond anywhere in the area, nor were there any other signs of beaver activity in the area. The tree was close to the edge about 30 ft above the river. Looking down I stood on an overhang: there was no way a beaver, or a dog for that matter, could climb to the top. So what the beaver was doing there will probably remain a mystery.

Every morning with breakfast I check the latest postings on the blogs that I follow and read the NY Times - the Tuesday issue is my favorite one since it has the weekly Science section. Today there was an article with the title Give Birds a Break, Lock Up the Cats It made me recall an website of birdsafe cat collars that I had saved in my Favorites folder, but never acted on: special fabric cat collars that will alert the birds to the presence of the cat. So I went ahead and ordered two collars for my neighbors cats that are stalking my feeders. I am not sure yet how to present the collars when they come in the mail - I'll have to be diplomatic though. It helps that the neighbors are our friends.

12/4/09 Mystery solved: I found many more trees cut down or worked on by a beaver, both small and very large trees, when I hiked up to the Hinsdale Bluff today. I also found the lodge:

This is the beaver lodge in the CT River, down a very steep slope. The beaver slide starts between the two trees in the foreground. It's a wonder how the animal made it up this almost vertical slope.

Monday, September 28, 2009


When going over some photos, deciding which ones to keep and which to delete, I found several of birds shot from behind, showing just the wings and the tail in profile and found it tells things about a bird that are not usually seen, i.e. how much power is required to lift a heavy bird like the Canada goose or a Great Blue Heron up into the air, how the tail in a red-tailed hawk works as a rudder...

As you can see I did some photoshopping on the images, just to remove some extraneous detail and make them blend together a little bit better.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

This is not a commercial....

In fact in advertising lingo it would be called a testimonial. But let me back up a bit. I have always envied a colleague of mine who used to wear a fishing vest to the office and hospital into which he could stuff anything he needed while rounding on his patients, whereas I was always dragged down by those things stuffed into my pant pockets or lab coat pockets. Now no more. I am talking about a photographer's vest.

After much research I settled on a vest made by an outfit called "Big Pockets". I was somewhat dubious about the color which was described as light sand but on the photo looked pink to me. Well it turned out to be perfect, even the color which was actually a pale sand with a hint of green. The fabric is soft and pleasant to the touch; it's light weight and has plenty of pockets

Here is what I can finally take along, whether I'll need it or not:
1) Extra battery for my camera
2) Lens Pen to brush off dust
3) iPod touch with the electronic birding guides (see Aug 4 post)
4) ID and some money
5) Cell phone
6) Recorder for those bird sounds I can't identify; so I can check on them at home
&) Extra flash card (to avert disaster when I have run off without one in my camera)
8) A small bottle of 98% DEET containing insect repellent
and 9) A small FLIP video camera, which I have not yet used, but you never know!

When out walking I am always looking for edible mushrooms and yesterday while walking along a forest trail I discovered a black chantarelle or "Horn of Plenty" - it's the best eating mushroom I have ever had. Although listed in my mushroom book as numerous, it's been about 15 years that I found my last one. They are very hard to see in the leaf litter as they look like a small trumpet-shaped curled-up grayish leaf. There was just a single one despite my scouring the immediate surroundings for more.

I also found some "suillus pictus" (see photo), a member of the bolete family, which grows near eastern white pine, is truly common and is listed as edible and choice. So I used the handful that I had picked in a small delicious side dish.

(Just a word of caution: don't eat any mushrooms with which you are not absolutely 100% familiar!!)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Great Blue Heron catching and swallowing a small fish

I was some distance away when the heron caught and swallowed the fish. Therefore the focus is quite soft - images almost look like pastels.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Black Vultures coming in to roost

I made it to the vulture roost on Putney Rd just in time, got there at 4:30 PM and already saw them circling over the trees - it must have been three or four. I grabbed my camera and started shooting. A couple of years ago black vultures were sighted at that roost but on several occasions I had waited in vain there to see them. I was lucky this time!

Coming in for a landing..... I stayed for a few more minutes but after that only saw turkey vultures.

Black Vultures over Brattleboro

This morning I saw 3 black vultures circling high in the sky at this location: 42.88548833,-72.56837833. I have often looked for them but have never seen any here before.

Although the images are not very good, they still show the characteristic short tail and pale outer primaries. I will check out the TV roost on Putney Rd this evening and see whether they will show up there.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Black Mountain - Unique Granite Dome in Southern Vermont

The other day I walked up Black Mountain, one of my favorite haunts for as long as I have been living on Black Mountain Rd. The landscape of round granite boulders, scrub oak and pitch pine reminds me of my travels in the Sierra Nevada. Tom Wessels uses Black Mountain as an example of bald granite domes in the introductory chapter to his book The Granite Landscape . It's an outpost, the only granite dome in the southern part of Vermont. Much of the land is protected by The Nature Conservancy.

The mountain is in the shape of an horseshoe with the opening facing south; only one side is readily accessible in an easy 20 min walk from Black Mountain Rd. Copying and pasting the coordinates +42° 55' 0.57", -72° 35' 29.23" into Google Maps and clicking on Terrain gives a good picture of the shape of the mountain. The trail cuts through old stone walls, indicating that much of this, even high up, used to be pasture (see note below) which was eventually abandoned for the richer soil of the Midwest after opening of the Erie Canal in the first quarter of 19th century. The view from the top is toward Brattleboro and the Connecticut River Valley with the West River valley on the right and Mt. Monadnock on the left.

Tom Wessels calls the top of this mountain "the harshest, hottest and driest site in all Vermont" contributing to the unique flora of pitch pine, scrub oak or as he calls it "bear oak" because it's the right height for, and is prized by, bears, mountain laurel and various lichens and mosses.

mountain laurel, pitch pine, scrub oak and lichen

He gives a fascinating account of how such granite domes with their silky smooth undulating surfaces came into existence.

The smooth grey appearance is due to polishing with silt and fine gravel over thousands of years by slowly advancing glaciers when large parts of North America were covered by a miles-deep ice sheet. Some granite slabs are marked by semi-circular deep gouges, called chatter marks, where larger boulders pushed by the glaciers have notched the stone. The chatter marks usually appear in a step-wise fashion reflecting the stuttering progress of the boulders across the stone.

This is not an area where birds are much in evidence except for the ubiquitous chickadees and the occasional turkey vulture. In fact several years ago a friend of ours was lying spreadeagled on the smooth granite with his eyes closed enjoying the sun. When at last he looked up a young turkey vulture was eyeing him, circling slowly over him just above the crown of the pines.

Currently the tops are bearing a rich crop of cones.

pine cones

Staring up high I discover a red-breasted nuthatch, a species that I haven't seen all summer.

As evening approaches a family of blue jays descend noisily from tree to tree to the valley below.

Evening on Black Mountain

Note: A wonderful book illustrating the landscape history of New England is "New England Forests through Time -- Insights from the Harvard Forest Dioramas" by David R. Foster and John F. O'Keefe.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Putney Mountain Hawk Migration Watch

I joined the hawk watchers on Putney Mountain on Tuesday. Most birds, broad-winged hawks, were just specks in the vast sky mapped by by proximity to clouds and trees, most of them at the very edge of what I could see with the naked eye, but the ravens flying along the ridge provided some diversion during the long pauses between sightings.

Sharp-shinned hawks were flying lower attracted by a fake owl mounted on a post. It was a thrill to see a hawk appearing suddenly low over the ridge between the trees, and taking target at the owl.

Each time they realized their mistake just as rapidly, veered off and disappeared into the sky.

On my way down I stopped at the famous Elephant Tree, a large ash tree:

For those interested in joining the watchers, here is a map of the Putney Mountain Trail:

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sunday afternoon on the CT River watching Osprey catch a large fish

My morning was to start with a breakfast run to a sick friend, but I found him so ill that I called Rescue and sent him to the ER. Later in the afternoon I took my two dogs along for a walk on the Fort Hill Railroad Trail along the CT River in Hinsdale. It was a brisk bright fall day with a bounty of ripening berries and wild grape in the bushes and trees along the way, but in terms of birding the pickings were slim. I saw Blue Jays, two Gray Catbirds, Mourning Doves and a couple of warblers. Here are photos of a bird that I need some help to identify: an immature mostly green tinged Northern Parula:

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

A Common Yellowthroat, a first winter male:

Common Yellow Throat

Along the river;s edge the Sumac in its full fall color; behind it the Vernon nuclear plant across the river:

On this peacefull Sunday afternoon a man and his dog were fishing.

The tranquility was suddenly interrupted by a tremendous splash. A large bird with its dark wings partially submerged was struggling to rise up and finally broke free of the water. It was an osprey carrying a large fish, that looked like a large catfish to me.

The Osprey with his fish circled once and came back into view:

And then disappeared:

Oblivious to the drama, my dogs Chance and Sasha meanwhile pursued their own agendas.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Trip to Michigan: Caspian Tern, Juvenile Gull and Solitary Sandpiper

Back from a car trip to Michigan for a family reunion and a wedding. On the way there we stopped at the Magee Marsh bird refuge on Lake Erie, but it was the wrong time of the year. It's where migrant warblers gather in the spring before venturing across Lake Erie. No birds other than a few up in the foliage of tall trees. The only bird of note was a lone Caspian Tern near the parking lot, a lifer for me, a big bird, larger than any of the other terns I had seen before, with a massive signal-red beak:

Caspian Tern

                                                                                  And look at those wings:

Caspian Tern

Caspian Tern

Once in Michigan there was little time to get away to do any birding. I made it to Van Buren State Park on the shore of Lake Michigan, and got some photos of gulls, mostly ring-billed and herring gulls but I was puzzled by a small rakish looking gull with pink legs and a pink beak with black tip:

jvenile ring-billed gull

I was thrown off by the pink legs and so it took some searching until I came up with correct answer: a first winter ring-billed gull with bluish-gray mantle in place, but still holding on to juvenile upperwing coverts. By next spring the bill and the legs will most likely have turned yellow, making identification much easier. Identifying and aging gulls is truly a specialty in itself.

The beaches of Lake Michigan and the sunsets over the lake were spectacular:

Lake Michigan beach

Lake Michigan

sunset with boat

On the drive home we pulled into the George D. Aiken National Wilderness on Rte 9 to rest our eyes numb from hours of staring at the cars in front of us. We drove up a narrow dirt road about a quarter of a mile past empty camping sites and stopped by a small bog in the middle of a spruce forest. It was early afternoon, very quiet with no sounds and no movement until I spotted a small bird standing on a slip of mud at the edge of a pool bobbing its head in a peculiar staccato motion, pausing briefly after each bob: a Solitary Sandpiper. It never dipped its beak into the pool or the mud; maybe the motion serves in adjusting its vision?

Solitary Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper

I approached it in slow motion but after another step it suddenly flew up with sharp shrill chattering and disappeared among the spruce.

Here for comparison a bird with similar spots, a Lesser Yellowlegs:

Lesser Yellowlegs