Tuesday, December 10, 2013

tales of hidden lives

i never have written a post about my deer, have i?
well. where to start. early 2011, jan/feb/march, i got to know the local deer herd who calls the fields and woods by my house (in ohio) their home. there's over 40 individuals if i remember the last count at one of their winter dusk-time meetups... and there are numerous subgroups, likely with mothers and their fawns. there are a few large bucks, and while the younger/smaller bucks come closer and further out of the woods, the largest of the males stay far away, ever watchful but wary.

i take walks almost every day, and more than once a day during summer, and so i have gotten to know their families, faces, groups, and subgroups very well. i am already versed in cetacean identification, but in some ways, deer are even harder. they change appearance during the course of the year, and their movements become less visible during summer months. this creates some confusion or lack of sightings sometimes. when winter rolls around, or "fuzzy deer season", i always celebrate because i know that the deer will be out more, more visible, and easier to identify. their markings are much more pronounced on their winter coats, and their colours are richer, making it simpler to separate them by colour shade. (some deer are much darker than others, some have redder coats in winter, some greyer, some browner, etc. in summer it's more uniform, but still there are slight variations)

i have named and catologued at least 15 of the deer i have positive identifications on through photos or repeated sightings, and i have plenty more that i need to assign names and alphanumerical designations to. i give them a number (in sequence from when i first assigned the number) and the prefix NR, for North Ridgeville (the town in which i live, and they live) since i'm the only one spending any real time studying and watching the herd, it isn't a priority to sort out all the faces in the photos i've taken. but, in the field, in my head, i have names for many more than i've written down.
the main deer i run into the most, what would be the main cast of characters if this was a television show (like meerkat manor...), are as follows:

NR1 Roger (younger buck; the first time i encountered him he had only one antler, and the one he had left was chipped at the end. his face is very youthful and the corner of his mouth makes him look like he's smiling)

NR2 Crimson (very handsome buck, one of my favourites; his coat turns bright cinnamon in the winter. his expression is suave; he looks like he knows he's handsome.)

NR4 Mosaic (lead doe, very watchful and wise, short and plump and she has very small rounded ears, round face, and scarred coat. i think of her as the oldest of the herd, and she is my favourite. i just feel connected to her. i always smile when i see her in the bunch. she's like the granny figure of the herd-- like granny j2 of the southern resident orcas. when everyone is bolting away, i can always tell where she is due to her stubby tail-- she's got half a tail, and the fuzz isn't as long as the other deer's tails. )

NR8 Lori (other lead doe, she is masculine in form and has a very heavy, unique step. she has a stern, boxy face and a tiny white speckle between her eyes. she's a character and i love her! she works in tandem with mosaic when they're together, but can hold her own while mosaic isn't around.)

NR10 Recon (one of the largest bucks, i've seen him and crimson hang together. recon is just massive and he honestly looks like a weathered but handsome military officer)

NR7 Serena was a lead doe with a lovely fawn brink NR12. serena was absolutely beautiful, and so unique looking. she had high set eyes, a long face, and one of the most endearing markings on her face was a little snip of white above her nose in the black triangle.
she, lori, sedge, and mosaic were a team of strong ladies. these lead does were brilliantly watchful together, and they really seemed like they knew each other well. serena and mosaic stuck together.
i haven't seen serena since 2011, and i miss her dearly. she was just a wonderful presence. 
i got to know her during the winter of 2011, but by the time the snow fell in late 2012, she was no longer with the herd. i haven't seen her since. i only hope she didn't meet her end by car or gun.
serena was a caring mother to her fawn brink NR12 and a dedicated and observant lead doe. she was outstandingly the leader in her subgroup, and she was ever watchful. she was cautious but never too afraid. 
she struck me as such a unique sort of beauty than the other does-- her high-set, calm eyes were soulful. her long face made her profile and face-on view much different than the rest. she was graceful and serene looking-- hence her name. 
i often think of her and miss her presence as i see her old subgroup moving across the fields at dusk. sometimes i imagine she's still out there, hiding among the trees at the edge of the clearing, still watching me with those deep, knowing eyes. she always had a sort of fantastic presence... perhaps she still moves silently through the woods, making paths i will never trace. 

Rose, Cadet, Huck

NR13 Rose 
(a thin, tall doe with a kind but cautious face. she's one doe who i constantly see all year long, and she is mother of NR14 and NR15)
NR14 Cadet (sex unknown, but a sort of timid young thing. cadet looks SO MUCH like their mother, it's almost scary. like, you can totally tell rose is their mother)
NR15 Huckleberry (huck for short. lil young buck who hasn't grown antlers yet. he's curious and wide-eyed, and is a lighter colour than his sibling or mother. however, his face is similar to his mother's so you can tell the relation)
the family of rose, cadet, and huckleberry i have known for years. while looking through my photos from last winter, i found a photo and something struck me: i knew those faces! it takes a bit of sleuthing to figure out who's who in winter vs summer, and for me, it's worlds easier to identify them in winter. their markings are more pronounced (sometimes certain markings only show up on winter coats!) and colours are richer. 
Rose, Huck in front, Cadet behind him
these two fawns (well, yearlings/young adults) i have encountered before, and they're really inquisitive. i think huck is more so than his sibling. 

this photo is from 2011 when i encountered them without rose, their mother. huck is in front. his lighter coat has always stood out, and it's easy to see in the first photo.  he looks pastel compared to his mousy mother and fawn sibling. both the fawns, though, look SO much like their mother. you can definitely tell they are related. i hope they survive for years to come, so i can see huck's antlers grow and rose bear new fawns to add to the family. 

each deer is an individual being, with a personality different than the others. i have seen spring fawns being led by their mothers, bucks dueling in autumn, yearlings prancing around and playing with each other, families foraging at dusk... getting to know these beings has been one of the most rewarding, eye-opening, and heartwarming parts of my life. i wish, so desperately, that i could go back in time and bring all my friends and family to stand silently in the snow at dusk on the quiet, frigid nights i stood watching the procession of the mosaic's herd, her wise steps guiding them to their nightly haunts. 
i wish i could bring my loved ones to the hour i spent with rose and her family that one late summer day, watching rose step and snort towards me, wary and nervous. 
i wish i could share my deer friends with everyone, i wish i could show the world how precious and unique each of their lives is. 

it is so important to acknowledge all living beings as individuals, with personal desires, dislikes, needs, emotions... we must learn to break down society's hardened and sky-high wall of speciesism, and begin to extend our compassion, respect, and kindness towards ALL life. only then will we be on the path to peace. only then will we begin to right our numerous wrongs.

i encourage you to get to know your own local deer beings, for they have much to teach you-- you need only listen.

~Peace always,

Huck, Cadet, Rose 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Hidden Poetry: The Grey Catbird

A garbled song at dusk. A sneezy mew in the shady forest. A flick of the tail in dense undergrowth. You move forward, passing these seemingly insignificant instances in search of something brighter and sweeter. Little do you realize, who you are leaving behind is perhaps the most remarkable of all.

Understated yet enigmatic, the Grey Catbird ( Dumetella carlolinensis ) is a soft smoky grey with and ash-colored tail and cap, deep brown eyes, and rich rusty chestnut undertail coverts. Growing up to 9.4 inches in length, they are medium-sized songbirds—but don’t let their size fool you. The Catbird’s quirky nature and endearing notes make for quite an interesting neighbor. Having adapted beautifully to the expanding urban environment, they make their nests in gardens and yards from the northwest to the southeast United States, and the southwestern portion of Canada. 

Human development, while extremely harmful to some species, has instead created habitat for Catbirds, who like tangled undergrowth and dense shrubs. Deforestation can cause patches of scrubby regrowth, perfect for Catbirds. They can be found foraging for insects and berries near disturbed roadsides, fence lines, and the edges of clearings. While most songbirds eat a diet heavy in insects, the Catbird eats many more berries when the fruit is ripe and so has a wider range of food to choose from. (This can be exasperating for bird banders, however, for when a Catbird relieves himself, as they frequently do when being handled, the product is a deep purple color that stains clothing!) On their wintering grounds on the Gulf Coast and central-to-south America, they eat almost nothing but fruits.

The adaptability of the Catbird is also apparent in their nesting strategy, which is to build multiple nests a season to ensure survival of their children.  Their well-hidden nests lie deep in thickets where predators like cats and snakes cannot find them. (Please keep your cats indoors to reduce the risk to birds of all species!)

Catbirds also confuse humans who would like to find them, for these birds are in the family Mimidae, which includes mockingbirds and thrashers—birds notorious for their ability to mimic other species’ sounds. Often heard but unseen, Catbirds produce individual variations on a jumbled, gargling song full of both buzzy and sweet notes. Their general species tune is interrupted by hundreds of mimicked phrases of other birds, frogs, and machinery. Unlike mockingbirds, however, Catbirds mimic in short bursts and the borrowed phrases are intertwined with the Catbird’s general song and sometimes cannot be completely distinguished from the rest of the song.

Why mimic, though? What purpose would copying other species’ voices serve? The answer is astounding: In order to survive, a male Catbird must find enough food, avoid predators, find a mate, establish and defend his territory, and migrate twice a year. This takes an astonishing amount of energy, and so many birds do not live very long. To deviate from any of these tasks could result in a loss of energy and could be fatal. However, successful males have energy to spare, for their territory is established and they are finding enough sustenance. This is when they listen. This is when they learn.

The more successful a Catbird is, the more time he has to spend listening to and learning other sounds, which he then incorporates into his own breeding song. This is an auditory signal to potential mates that he is a good suitor: successful and smart. Interestingly, if he has traveled around and learned birdsong from other regions outside of his current territory, it will be reflected in his song and therefore shows the females that he is experienced.

The Catbird sings before dawn and at dusk, their rich and melancholy voices greeting the day and then putting it to sleep. Their tentative mews uttered softly from hidden perches offer a sweet, questioning companion to the lonely hiker.

In their plush grey feathers, with muted tones of buff and taupe, and their large dark eyes, with glinting slivers of burnt umber in the iris, there is poetry. They stay hidden until it is time to be seen, until they are confident enough in their observer. When binoculars meet the gaze of a thin grey being barely visible in the brush, there is something about even the quickest of glances that stirs the heart. Abundant the Grey Catbird may be, but to really see one, and to have them see you, is an experience few and far in between.

~Peace always,
Kristina ~

*Please note*: This essay was originally written for the Ohio Young Birders Club's Golden-Wings newsletter. Please consider joining if you are a young birder in the Ohio region, or making a donation to the club if you are able to! It is a wonderful group of young naturalists ages 12-18 who are passionate about birds and nature, and are on their way to do big things for conservation! Please help the cause and support these amazing folks! Thanks!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Flocking Flames

The most abundant native North American bird is the enigmatic Agelaius phoeniceus: the Red-winged Blackbird. Often overlooked by birders, this successful icterid (passerine of the Icteridae family which includes blackbirds, meadowlarks, and New World orioles) utilizes both marshy and grassland habitats for nesting and foraging. Their range extends from coast to coast, and the males' incredibly loud, mechanical "konk-la-reee" songs ring from spring to summer each year, recognized by birders and nonbirders alike.

In their binomial nomenclature,  genus "Agelaius" is derived from Greek 'agelaios', or 'belonging to a flock'. During migration, these blackbirds group in breathtaking flocks of millions of birds.
Their species Latin refers to their red colouration.  Red pigment (carotenoids) cannot be synthesized by the birds themselves, but must be ingested through the foods they eat. On males, this red pigment is obvious during their mating displays, when the red and yellow section of upper secondary covert feathers are clearly visible. This bright patch is called an 'epaulet'.

This male was being banded at Navarre Marsh by Black Swamp Bird Observatory.

Seen in Florida in springtime, the yellow part of the epaulet is visible on this male.

This particular male has a more orange tint to his epaulet, and a neat yellow edging to his tertial feathers and a few coverts.

A layer of black scapular feathers cover the epaulet until the male wants to display. This ability to cover the red patch is very important in the blackbird's life, as, when visible, the red triggers aggression and territoriality in other males. When the male wants to appear friendly or nonterritorial, he covers up his epaulets and thus exhibits no aggression. If he couldn't cover the red, he would be perpetually angry and would be chased around all his life!

Black scapular feathers overlay the bright epaulets. 

In flight, you can clearly see the entire epaulet.

When it comes to females, however, it is not so clear. The girls are a complex streaky brown filled with many shades of cream and peach. The intensity of their colour is highly variable between individuals.
The back and wings are darker than their bellies.

Their bellies are streaked and their head is marked with stripes.

As a female ages, she can develop deeper tones to her face and also her own secondary feathers. Too often the beautiful colouration of the female Red-winged Blackbird is passed by in favour of more striking birds, but when one takes the time to notice the plumage of a seasoned Redwing lady, it is wonderfully rewarding. They are brighter than you would think!

The following photographs are of a breeding female in Ohio, seen on her search for food for her fledgling chicks, on June 14 2013. 

Notice the scarlet secondary feathers-- a deeper shade than many expect!

Here you can see her brood patch-- the bald patch of fluid-filled skin that develops on nesting birds to help incubate their eggs and keep babies warm. The fluid helps conduct more heat to the skin and, because it is bare, the skin can pass heat directly to the eggs/ babies.

These incredible birds are all around us, all the time, but rarely do we ever stop to appreciate their complex plumages. The next time you are out birding, please take a moment to watch the Red-winged Blackbirds as they forage and fly! You'd be surprised at how beautiful they become once you take the time to get to know them!

~Peace always,

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Biggest Lesson in Birding

Two years ago, I was sulking like a Mourning Warbler, hiding behind the crowds and not saying much. Skirting the shadows, too shy to show myself. Who could have imagined that, two years later, I would be standing in front of the very people I once was too nervous to speak to and be giving a keynote presentation at the very festival that made the first crack in my shell, allowing me to see how beautiful the world could be.

I certainly could not have predicted as much, but there I was. Maumee Bay State Lodge, opening night of the Biggest Week in American Birding, speaking without a script or any notes about the birds and people I have met and loved since those earlier days. I wasn’t a Mourning Warbler anymore—I was a bright Blackburnian, flashing my colours and not afraid to hop about the branches, visible to all.

It was all thanks to one Grey Catbird.

I’ve told the story now tens of times, but it never gets old. That day, two years ago by the boardwalk at Magee, when I looked into that bird’s eyes and saw someone I wanted to protect. That flurry of wings, that shock of quiet power, that leap of energy from tiny clawed feet to my outstretched hand. The bird that opened the door to my adventure.
The bird that has now allowed me to open the doors for so many others.

‘Every journey begins with a single step’, and in my case, a single flight. The flight of a catbird that led me to spread my own wings and, for the first time, not have to beat through upstrokes and downstrokes, but to soar on a warm thermal of air that carried me farther than I ever thought possible. Allowed me to see things, meet people, I would have never imagined.

And so, as I stepped onto the boardwalk for the first time this year, I was met with the familiar sights and sounds of the Biggest Week in American Birding and found comfort in the hustle and bustle of the festival.

 My first life bird of the day took just minutes to find—a male Cerulean Warbler, foraging at the top of a tree at the beginning of the boardwalk! It was sort of surreal to see this bird, for I have long heard of them but never seen them.

Soon after, a second lifer appeared, even rarer than the first—a male Golden Winged Warbler! I ended up seeing one more, and that second one was in a tree with a Cerulean! Not a bad day for rare warblers, I might say.

Then, in the same area: a Mourning Warbler! These are incredibly elusive birds, sticking to the shadows and low shrubs. You must have a lot of patience to see them when they appear, and so I sat, staring into the brush, along with a crowd of other birders waiting for the male Mourning Warbler to break cover.

Eventually, he did, and long enough for me to get some photographs! The clearest I’ve ever seen a MOWA and certainly the best photos I’ve ever gotten of one! What a beautiful little bird.

Nearby was a strikingly richly coloured Wood Thrush. Thrushes as a group are my favourites, for their ethereal songs and perfectly balanced forms.

The warblers at Magee often get so close that you don’t even need binoculars, and sometimes even too close for telephoto lenses! This happened with a stunning Blackburnian warbler (my favourite of all the warblers). I did manage to snap a few good photos, as he stayed low and close for quite a while. Usually these birds are high above, foraging in the top of trees, so this was an exceptionally incredible encounter.

Later down the boardwalk, I found some more wonderful warblers like Bay-breasteds, Magnolias, and Yellow-rumpeds.

A male Black-throated Blue Warbler came close as well, singing right in front of us!

This Common Grackle was preening in the sun, his iridescent feathers illuminated into golds, purples, and blues. Their yellow eyes and large bills make it easier to see how the birds evolved from dinosaur origins—Grackles look positively reptilian!

Also, the third life bird of the day was a Whip-poor-will, who was pointed out to me by a fellow birder. He certainly camouflaged in with his surroundings!

Later in the afternoon I came across a large group of people, and that could only mean one thing—a bird of interest had been sighted! It turned out to be a rare bird even for Magee standards—a Worm eating Warbler! These are an ‘overflight’ species, which means they breed in southerly states but some individuals overshoot their destination and eventually turn back around to fly down to their breeding grounds. So, it’s hard to find them up here! He was incredibly difficult to see and I was staring at the same clump of tangled branches for about half an hour, and saw him for maybe 20 seconds in total. Not long enough for a photo, but I’m still glad I got to see him. He was my fourth life bird of that day!

Another unusual sighting was not a bird, but a reptile—a Blanding’s Turtle. I saw two of these endangered turtles, and this one’s throat was so yellow it reminded me of a Prothonotary warbler!

On the way out of the boardwalk, I took the stairs up to the observation deck to find a really neat Tree Swallow and a foraging Eastern Phoebe. Within the coming weeks, I am sure that the male Prothonotary Warbler from last year will be back again to claim his territory under the deck!

The next day, at Maumee Bay State Lodge, I found a pair of gigantic Trumpeter Swans, their heads and necks stained from lives of foraging in iron-rich waters. I even heard one of the swans make little trumpet-notes as they swam.

The next Saturday (May 11) was International Migratory Bird Day 2013. It marked two years since my first catbird encounter, and so it was only fitting that I found many catbirds all throughout the day!

I also was super excited over seeing a female Black throated Blue warbler—I think they’re so beautiful, with their ‘mascara’, white ‘handerchief’, and subtle blue hue to their feathers. What a stunning little lady! I hardly see females of this species, so this was a special treat. She stuck around for a while, and allowed many good looks!

Earlier in the day I helped out with the bird banding demonstration at Black Swamp Bird Observatory, telling the visitors about my experience with the Catbird and how they have given me the ticket to the adventure of a lifetime. It was a full-circle moment: two years ago, I was nervous just to attend the banding demo. Now, here I was, in front of all the visitors, teaching them about the birds and sharing the importance of appreciating and conserving these feathered wonders.

I wouldn’t have guessed that the power of birds was that strong, but I am so happy, grateful, and humbled by how inspiring they have been to me. I would not be where I am today if not for birds, or the people they have brought into my life. I hope that, in years to come, I can continue to tell my story at Biggest Weeks and show others that, with a little gust of wind a flock to guide you, flight doesn’t seem as hard after all.

~Peace always,
Kristina Polk~