Friday, November 30, 2012

What A Bunch O' Bull

While much of Metro Detroit is imploding (and has been doing so for years), Wyandotte seems to hang on.  Despite the loss of Lions, Tigers, and Beers, a local watering hole,  to fire a short time back, much of the downtown still has a buzz.  The buzz is even more present during the holidays.  
Merrill Lynch maintains an office on a downtown corner.  Yes, the banking scam-ola from a few years ago contributed to the meltdown of our economy and, yes, this has some people wanting to kill any random bank manager or investment company. 
But put all that aside for a moment.  You can't deny the bull that is the Merrill Lynch logo is pretty damned cool.  A fun little play-on-words, I'm sure it is referencing a bull market.  Even more cool is the fact they have a life-sized steel sculpture of a bull right outside their front door.

With the camera on a tripod, I used a 25-second exposure.  The red bars are car brake lights as they drifted through the shot.
I won't lie.  There is a lot about this shot that I do not like.  The black hole that occupies the upper left quadrant is where LTBs used to sit.  Traffic is, of course, committed to the appropriate lane. 
I thought about changing some things.   I find the truck hiding behind the red lights a bit distracting.  While I am perfectly capable of simply picking up that guy's truck and moving it (I'm stronger than I look), I opted not to do that. 
Then I thought I could move the sculpture.  Same story.  I could, but I thought better of it. 
 A short walk to the closed City Hall jettisoned my plan to have traffic on Biddle re-routed. 
So, with a truck, sculpture, and traffic more or less commited to their respective locations, I did what I could do. 
That's no bull.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

2012 Thanksgiving Day Parade Photo Essay

No wordy narrative today. Just pics from the parade with Nat and her mom.  Good fun and a good chance to learn the new rig....



Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Air Brakes

One of the most impressive machines to ever fly during last century was the SBD Dauntless.  Flown by both the United States Navy and Marine Corps during World War II, this plane functionally did it all.  

If you needed a scout plane, it was prefect.  With an range of over 1,000 miles, huge chunks of the South Pacific could be covered with ease.

If you needed extra craft for combat air patrol, its nimble behavior and two sets of machine guns (one controlled by the pilot with the other set controlled by a back-seat gunner) would get you through in a pinch.

If you needed to plant a 1,000-pound bomb on the flight deck of an enemy aircraft carrier, this was the machine to do it.  Just ask the Japanese.   

From altitudes up to 12,000 feet, pilots, after staking out their prey, would push the plane into a dive of 70 degrees. That is damn near straight down.  Adjusting wing trims and applying solid training, bombs would be released from about 1,500 feet after a harrowing 30-second plummet. Yanking back on that stick like it could be the last thing he did (because it could be), the pilot was subjected to forces of five or six times the pull of gravity.  The rear seat gunner, who sat back-to-back with the pilot, recorded any hits as he was looking towards the rear of the plane.  Roaring away from the target at speeds of 275 mph while almost kissing the ocean waves, it was a straight shot home.  Basically, take the craziest, steepest roller coaster ride you have ever ridden, and you're not even close.

That 275 mph figure is pretty key.  Not 300 mph. Not 350 mph. Smooth and steady at 275.  This classic photograph shows why....

Take a look at the trailing edge of the wing.  Do you see those holes? No, they are not from gunfire.  They are called dive brakes.  Opened at the beginning of the dive, the plane's speed is limited as the holes induce drag. 

Airplanes also use what is a called an air brake. Instead of "breaking a dive", they introduce huge amounts of drag while the plane is in level flight or landing. 
 "Top Gun" really played up the role of the air brake.  The star of the movie, an F-14, was about to get shot down.  A secondary character, played by a complete lunatic, is flying the plane and pulls the brake.  The enemy plane rockets in front of said movie star, and the enemy gets shot down. 
Natalie and I were walking the park the other day.  Always trying to be keep my eye peeled for bird photos, I looked over my left shoulder and saw a Bald Eagle in level flight.  I have not preconceptions that I am cool here, but I think I saw him before he saw us. 
Pulling the camera from my hip like Doc Holliday would a six-shooter, I snagged some pictures.  During the exposures, the bird suddenly seemed to notice us and all forward progress basically stopped.  For a brief moment, this Bald Eagle was basically suspended in mid-air.
The images were mushed together in Photoshop.

Looking at the time stamp on the camera, I can tell you all five images were taken in less than one second  (my camera can shoot eight frames per second so this makes sense).

Viewing images #1 and #3 (from the left) one can clearly see the how the feet have left their "stowed" position and have been swung forward.  Looking at image #2 on the master copy I have on my computer, the legs are still forward - they were simply pointing straight at me when I took the image and are therefore hard to see here.
My point here might be this: airplanes and birds aren't so different.  Afterall, birds were the inspiration for planes in the first place.  I find it kind of cool how both flying machines have strategies for solving the same problem.
If the airplane needs to slow down, air brakes/dive brakes are deployed.
When a Bald Eagle needs to slow down, they do the same thing.
How cool.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Wrapping Paper?

With the hawkwatch not exacting hopping with hawks, Natalie and I took a little walk around the trails yesterday.

As a direct result of my fantastic photographic skills, I managed to snap a photo as a Killdeer flock shot overhead.  My skills are so extraordinary that I timed the image such that all the birds were perfectly spaced and in perfect wing synch.  How cool. *

I was struck by how much the image looked like wrapping paper for a Christmas gift.

I hate wrapping paper.  

It is often ugly, and hardly festive, during a season of waste and excess.  The only real joy one gets from wrapping paper involves taking the bow (presumably found on said ugly wrapping paper) and sticking it to the dog's head. Beyond that, who cares.

Given that so many people are starting to the see the light and have begun to purchase gift bags (that can be used again and again), maybe I should start my own line of bags......

* Actually, it was just one bird in a blue sky that I cloned over and over again with Photoshop. 

Monday, November 12, 2012


Yesterday, Natalie and I enjoyed one final day of "warm weather" birding. With temps pushing 70 degrees for likely the last time until spring, we did some local birding where I had a chance to meet an acquaintance  of mine. I first met him a few years ago. 

Alfred Erikson was only 34 years of age when he died in 1926.  Pushing up daisies in the tiny Bloomdale Cemetery in Trenton (located on King Road at West Jefferson), Erickson was apparently heavily involved in illegal booze trafficking (it was the heart of the Prohibition Era). According to an old newspaper account (uncovered through research I did for work), Alfred was motoring down a side street in Wyandotte after dark.  An assailant (never identified, as I recall) ran out of the shadows, jumped on the running boards on the driver's side of the car, and proceeded to ventilate 'ole Alfred with a machine gun.  The scene might have looked something like this (advance to the 00:18 mark). 

The tiny cemetery, like so many others,  has some cedar trees.  These evergreens are little refuges to tiny little Saw-whet Owls as they migrate through the region.  The dense nature of the branches gives the owls cover during the daylight hours.

I'm gonna find an owl in that cemetery if it is the last thing I do, dammit.  

Anyhow, before we had a chance to really start looking around, Natalie pointed out a Northern Mockingbird along the edge.  I managed a crappy photo:

What does any of this have to do with anything, you might ask?  It turns out West Jefferson between King Road and Sibley is a hotbed of Mockingbird activity.  After finding exactly zero owls in the cemetery, we proceeded northbound and found FOUR Mockingbirds on the route.

It turns out a probable fifth Mockingbird was not seen north of the Grosse Ile Pay Bridge. There is often a bird there, but not on a our impromptu "survey".  

So as birders continue to bird the region, all indications suggest that this stretch of road is pretty damned reliable for Mockingbirds. Sure, birding is never guaranteed, but most birders with Mockingbird on their Wayne County list have seen one of these birds along this stretch.

All this brings us back to names.  One of these birds was named "Jim" by Natalie some number of months ago.  While not the coolest name in the world ("Paul" is much better"), his affinity to the area immediately around Jim's Garage made naming pretty easy. For months, we have been noting the bird's location to each other.  "Hey, I saw Jim at the car wash today" or "Jim was kicking was the crap out of some starlings by the bar".  

Sure, the confirmation of four birds makes the name thing a bit tough, as we don't know if it is Jim, his squeeze, his kid, a new comer, or some other variable. There is no way to tell.

So where does this leave our new Mockingbird friend at the Bloomdale Boneyard?  

I propose "Alfred".   Its perfect.  Alfred the bird was there many months ago, but I assumed he was Jim from the up street.  I'm not so sure now.  In any case, he seems to have taken an affinity to the place.

Alfred, the rum-runner, has an affinity to the cemetery, too. He hasn't the left the place since 1926!

Alfred?  Meet Alfred!

Sunday, November 11, 2012


Have you ever looked up the word "gross?"   Like so many words in the English language, it has lots of meanings.  Big, flagrant, vulgar, unqualified, disgusting and "without deductions" are all acceptable.  (You can ask a Democrat - "Romney for President" is also a new definition of gross.  Oh wait. That would fit under "disgusting"...)

Anyhow, a few days ago, I had a bird sighting I could call gross.

I was out looking for Evening Grosbeaks.  Again.  As you may have heard, they are being reported all over the Midwest.   With reports from all over Metro Detroit, including Lake Erie Metropark, now is the time for me to get them. 

After failing to find them at Westcroft Gardens (but securing great looks at White-winged Crossbills, another winter finch looking to come down in big numbers this winter), I set off for Lake Erie Metropark.  Fly-bys at the Hawkwatch were very possible. 

Based on my studies and conversations with folks, identifying an Evening Grosbeak in flight should not be too hard if you get a good look.  Basically, they resemble American Goldfinches but are much larger.  Yellow, black, and white are the primary colors on the males while the females sport more gray.  Flight is more bounding in nature; they don't fly straight.   Prominent white patches on the wings are key.  

Per usual, the conversation at the hawkwatch was great (it usually is). In my own jovial way, I was joking that if I don't see any Grosbeaks this winter at the park or in Wayne County, I'm just gonna  lie about it.  (Trust me, I wouldn't lie about something so trivial.  That said, I'm sure others have. Anyhow....).  

So, with the hawk flight being rather poor after my arrival (it happens often), I was just panning the skies to the north.  

Perhaps 400 yards away (so says Google Earth), I spied a flock of songbirds.  Perhaps 15.  Black. Yellow. White flashes on the wings.  With near certainty, they were my flock of Grosbeaks!

As I recall, I shouted out that some one needs to get a scope on those birds!  Jonathon, the hawk counter, managed to do it. After all, a 20-power scope is going to do a much better job at 400 yards that my 8-power binoculars.  As they descended into Gibraltar, he confirmed them. Yes, indeed - Evening Grosbeaks!  

Sadly, there were some frustrations. 

First, they did not fly into Lake Erie Metropark airspace.  I know, I know, I know.  You're thinking "Who gives a shit....". Well, I do. I can't count them for my Park list unless they fly over the park. 

Second. Only Jonathon and I saw them. My buddy Mark,  a moment or two after Jonathon and I watched them disappear, basically said "What did you just see?"  How awful for me. Here I am thinking I *shouted* to folks to view that flock, but only Jonathon heard me.  NO ONE else saw them.  (That said, my sympathy for Mark is pretty slim. He had a Grosbeak FLY OVER HIS HOUSE!)  

So, as the numbers go, those birds became my first ever record for Evening Grosbeak in Wayne County.  My total is now 281 species. Had they flown over  the Park (or at least significantly closer), the Park list would be 252.  It looks like 251 is here to stay for a bit....

So, thinking back to the title of this blog, what is so gross about all this?  Well, Evening Grosbeaks are not vulgar or overweight. There were not 144 birds in the flock.  (A gross is 144 objects.)

Nope.  It is the name of a Evening Grosbeak flock. Gross.  A gross of Grosbeaks.  

My 281st Wayne County bird. Evening Grosbeaks at 400 yards.  


In a good way.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Bonaparte's Invasion

With dreams of sugar plums Evening Grosbeaks dancing in my head, I spent the most of my time today at Lake Erie Metropark.  After walking the trails for a short bit, I spent the day at the hawkwatch.  

Golden Eagles. Check. Red-shouldered Hawks. Yup.  American Kestrel? Sure...a bit late, but tell her that!  All in all, a super day.  

So while the temperatures were chilly and the birding was great, it was, in my opinion, the gulls that made the day really fun.

No, not just any gull. This one:

Oh, I know what you're saying.  "Geee....a sea-gull.  Gross.  I can see those at the dumpster at Taco Bell."

This is a Bonaparte's Gull. I'm sure you have heard the name.  The little guy.  He talked funny.  Always had his hand in his coat (like they didn't have pockets at the time). Conquered Europe.  One source even has Bonaparte visiting San Dimas, California.  (Truly amazing when you find out that Napoleon died in 1821 and San Dimas was not even incorporated as city until 1960.   Most amazing, huh?)

All that aside, the gull is not named after the conqueror of Europe. It was named in honor of his nephew, Charles Lucien Bonaparte, an early North American ornithologist.  In any case, let's face it - this  has to be one of the coolest looking gulls in North America.  Forget the gross browns and grays that you see on "Gulless grosses taco bellus".

Nesting in trees, believe it or not, across much of the Canadian Shield region and west into Alaska, Bonaparte's Gulls are not at all uncommon in Michigan. During the autumn migration, a load of these white and gray gems will go parading around western Lake Erie.  They snag minnows out of the water with ease.  So dainty in flight, new birders often mistake them for terns.

Today's hawkwatch gave us a chance to really see them up close.

Even when the hawkwatching was good, it can only be better when Bonaparte's Gulls are "invading" the area. 


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Three Years Later...

With hopes of seeing an Evening Grosbeak in Wayne County, Natalie and I set out this morning to one of the more reliable locations in the region for winter finches- Westcroft Gardens.  

Established in 1776 (really), the place, while not large, has all the right needs for birds looking to make it through the winter. Food. Cover. It is all there.  

The tail-less Carolina Wren was worth a chuckle.  1.9 millions Robins  were pretty impressive, too.  Sadly, winter finches were not be found.  (Do not mention to me that a flock of Evening Grosbeak zipped past the Hawkwatch.  I'll kill you.) 

Hoping to find something else of note, we took a spin around the island.   Along the southwest edge of the island, we found ourselves looking for Kingfishers.  We have had them there in the past.  Why not check again?

What I'm pretty sure was the same 100 yards of real estate along West River Road, the ole guy was still hangin' out.  

Yes, the "orange" picture was taken in 2009. But so what.  While nothing lives forever, the thought that a Kingfisher could patrol the same stretch of river for more than three years is not all that exotic.  

The real question is whether or not he will be there in 2015.  We'll be watching.