Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lookin' For A Friend

Check this bird out.

No, it is not a Great Egret. Take a closer look. Yeah, it's a Cattle Egret.

A few days back (May 20th), this single bird showed up at Lake Erie Metropark. No, it is not the first time I have recorded them there. I had a trio on April 22, 1996. But it is certainly notable.

"Why?" you might ask?

Travel back in time 150 years and spend some time birding Michigan (or North America for that matter) and you would not have seen Cattle Egrets. You would not have seen House Sparrows or European Starlings either. While the sparrow and starling were brought here, from the Old World, on purpose, and have become the scourge of the North American bird world, the Cattle Egret is a bit different even though it, too, is from across "the Pond". They got here totally on their own.

The Cattle Egret is native to large parts of Africa and Asia. Somehow, someway, they got from Africa to South America. They are birds, after all, so they probably just flew. The first birds were noted in 1877. By 1941, they were in the United States. 1953? Successful breeding. It is now a very common bird in the southeast United States. They have been recorded just about everywhere. Michigan is well north of their breeding range but that does not stop them from blundering up here now and then. I have three records in the state in the last 15 years and have seen then in nine states if that tells you anything.

What about the cows? True to its name, there is an association with cattle. No, they don't eat burgers; they pick at the insects that the cattle stir up. There are cattle-like animals in Africa. Wildebeest to name just one. The egrets don't care. Cow vs Wildebeest? Same difference, right? The bird in the photo, even though miles from any cow, was certainly picking at bugs and other little beasties.

It is not all about bugs, by the way. I recall very clearly a comment from a park interpreter at the Dry Tortugas National Park when I was there years ago. The park, in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, often has an influx of dim Cattle Egrets. "Dim" because they show up but aren't smart enough to leave even when food resources are small. If they don't get enough chow, they're dead. They will pick at the migrant songbirds when they can get them, too. Daily duties for the park staff include morning walks picking up Cattle Egret carcasses.

To the best of my knowledge, this bird did not meet the same fate as his/her Tortugas brethren. At least nobody, so far as I know, was dispatched to stuff its body in a giant Ziploc. Save those for the burgers...


Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems concerning all sorts of matters, including, but not limited to, existence, knowledge, and values. So, one would think that a philosopher is one would studies these things, right?

After tonight, I think I might want be called a Philosopher, too. What did I study? The Three Philosophers (#747) and everything that is wrong with it....

Does it exist? Yes, it most certainly does. Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY whips this stuff up. A Belgian Quadrupel Ale, they actually add a cherry ale to a straight-up Belgian style ale.

Hmmmmm...knowledge. Here is what I know: on the pour, it is a pretty good looking beer. A deep ruby red with hints of brown, it poured well and generated a fair, light tan head in my snifter. The carbonation, from start to finish, cuts like a knife. The aroma was a bizarre mix of fruit (no doubt the cherry ale), a twitch of vinegar and few other subtleties (caramel, maybe?). The medium body had a very malty palate that never gave up. Right to the finish and beyond, it was there. A hint of the cherry returned somewhere in the final stages of the swallow. Finish? Dry and malty...

Values. I sort of struggled with this one. I mean...I wanted to like it, but I the carbonation wrecked it. Cherry what? All I got was the powerful tingling that goes with super abundant bubbles in your mouth and tons of malt. Any attempt for the cherry to shine was nixed for the most part.

According to Plato "Philosophy begins in wonder." I wonder what Ommegang was thinking when they put this one together. 2 out of 5. Cut the carbonation and I can give it a straight "3".

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Compass Points

This past Saturday was the kind of day birders really like to think about. Good birds and good company. What more could you want? By the end of the day (90+ species), I figured that we had accounted for all the compass points...


Read on....

At some stupid hour of the morning, I picked up my good friend Don. Three hours later, we found ourselves in the company of a few others in a small marsh just outside of Tawas, Michigan. What in the world would compel us to do such a thing?

If you think this bird is a Common Moorhen or American Coot, think again. First, the bill is not white. It looks like a giant candy corn so that rules out Coot. No flank stripe, either. Hmmm. Notice, too, the "shield" on the forehead is bluish. With that stunning mix of blues, greens and purples, only thing fits - Purple Gallinule.

Normally found the deep south (Florida, for example), this bird is one of handful that are known to have spread their way into the Midwest in the last few weeks. The last I checked, Ohio had at least 4 birds. Many Michigan birders were hoping one would show up in Michigan but I don't think many people would have predicted Tuttle Marsh!

So, with that bird out of the way (my 341st bird species in Michigan), our first of the four compass points, "south", was secure.

After a quick lunch in town, the second destination of the day was Tawas Point State Park. While others have been going there for years, this was our first trip to this now very popular birding spot. Within minutes of our arrival, we secured our western bird of the day:

Sure, the picture (actually taken later in the day) is not crisp and totally lacks any composition and character, but this Willet did not seem to think my need for a nice photo was important. I just happened to have my camera at the ready when it came winging by. I'm surprised I captured what I did!

Apparently, this bird has two different forms. While the differences are said to be subtle, they exist. Some people see the day when the species will be split into two different species - an "eastern" and a "western". To date, it appears the Willets that drift into Michigan are indeed the western form. Chock up another compass point!

The next bird - the "eastern" one, if you will, is a birder's dream. Everybody wants to see something cool. How about a rare bird? How about a rare bird in migration? Yeah, the pic is waaaaay bad, but I think you might recognize it -

Yes, indeed, a Kirtland's Warbler! One of the rarest birds in North America, it nests in Michigan (for the most part) and winters in the Bahamas. It is also a bird with one of the silliest breeding plans known. Oh hell no, they can't just show up the breeding grounds and have a party. They have to find jack pines on properties 80+ acres in size that burned about six years previous to their arrival. The trees can't be too big or too small. If they are, they move on and find a new place...if it is available....

Oh, but we have to make it more serious. They are apparently a bit impaired and don't recognize the egg of the Brown-headed Cowbird. The cowbird lays the egg in the warbler's nest and they raise it as their own because they don't recognize the invader. Ultimately, they spend all their time raising young that are not their own. Bad news in the long run...

So, if you combine weird breeding biology with cowbirds, you have a bird that is lucky to not be extinct!

So, what was the northern bird? Know this one?

The Northern Parula, true to the name, has a part of its breeding range in the northern Canada. Unlike their cousin, the Kirtland's Warbler, Parula numbers are not close to extinction at all. Any way you look at it, rare or not, it is a slick looking warbler!

So there you have it - the compass points! Who needs "south", "west", "east" and "north" when you can use Purple Gallinule, Willet, Kirtland's Warbler, and Northern Parula.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Two Magicians

Last night was a chance to sample the magic of two magicians. One continues to dazzle while the other, though experienced, botched the trick.

Jamie Oliver continues to amaze me. His simple kitchen tricks are a welcome addition to my spell book. That iPhone app is awesome. If you cook and own an iPhone, get it. You'll thank yourself later.

Farfalle Genovese could be made by anybody. Boil pasta. Add green beans and potatoes. Drain and add pesto with Parmesan cheese. It was actually more challenging for me to write this paragraph than it was for me to cook the meal. I could have added some drama by making my own pesto but I kept it simple and used pre-made stuff. Easy and awesome. Plus, you can make a ton of it and make it disappear over the next few days.

Unfortunately, the beer of the night did not match the magic of the meal. The Magician (#746) from the Short's Brewing Company reminded me of one of those magic tricks that looks like it will amaze you when it starts but then they botch the trick and you feel let down. I was left rather disappointed. Visually? This beer was a total treat. Deep red with a silky tan head, I wanted to just jump in it. The rich tones of malt and caramel were easily picked up on the nose and were very inviting. After that, this prognosticator flubbed his act. Somewhere in the malts and caramel tones a fruity tartness was hiding. It was actually pushing the limits of vinegar. Before long, it was no longer hiding; it was center stage. Based on the reviews elsewhere, others were getting it, too. I can't give this thing a high score - two out of five. If this Magician can really make things disappear, he needs to address that tartness.......

There you have it. Two magicians. One with pesto. One without presto!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Birds And A Bee

With spring springing and birds moving, birders move, too, right? A mid-May day for birders in southeast Michigan can sometimes mean a trip to Ohio's Crane Creek....or Magee Marsh...or whatever they want you to call it nowadays....

In spite of a chilly start, 1.9 million cars and 2.7 trillion people*, Natalie (a fellow birder) and I had a descent day. Only 64 species (20 of which were warblers) were tallied. At no point did we even try for shorebirds at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. Given the day's other commitments, we opted to spend the morning looking for songbirds. By lunchtime, we needed to move along.

The two giant highlights of the day, for me, included Golden-winged Warbler and Mourning Warbler. Despite countless trips to Ohio over the last 10+ years, I have never seen either species in Ohio. I had no idea this was the case until I came home and entered my records into my computer. My Ohio list now stands at 223 species.

Unfortunately, most of my pics were just not very good. While the birds were cooperative, the lighting was less than ideal (very shaded in spots) or the bird was simply in the wrong spot (back-lit). With the dim lighting, I did the best I could with my rig, but many of the pics were just a bit too fuzzy as a result of slower shudder speeds. Oh well. I guess I will just have to upgrade my equipment to something that can handle a higher ISO without the graininess.

The above picture of a Prothonotary Warbler is basically the only real keeper of the day. The poor fellow, interested in the nesting hole he is in, was duking it out with a House Wren (also a cavity nester). To make matters even more exciting for us pseudo-photographers, the whole spat (or should it be "hole" spat?) was taking place just a few feet off the boardwalk. Very cool.

Oh, you probably are wondering what the bee reference? After leaving the boardwalk for a bathroom (and eventually lunch), I stood up out of the car and what did we find? A half-squished honey bee on the seat! Yes, the poor fellow got between my wide load and the seat. There is no telling that he was on "me bum" (to borrow a phrase from the English) when I sat down or was on the seat first. It doesn't matter. It was not a safe place to "bee".

All in all? A fine day to be out. Fortunately, we made it when we did. The weather is supposed to "bottom" out for the rest of week. Rain and cold temps. Ohhhhhhhh, yippee........

* Given the rising popularity of this place, I am not sure I will ever go back on a weekend. If this place is this crazy on Monday, weekends must be a total drag....

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Long Day

Long days are sometimes the best ones.

Yesterday, my co-worker Natalie ( a fellow bird addict) and I hopped the border into Canada for some birding at Point Pelee National Park.

Never heard of it? I could go on all day about the place, but here it is in a nutshell. Birds moving north out of Ohio (across Lake Erie) get pooped and land at the Point. Birders and ornithologists have been coming here for decades. That is a big nutshell version but you get it, I think.

I was a bit shocked when I got home and looked at my notes. I had last been there in May of 2004! That would explain a lot! The Point itself simply does not look like it used to. The observation deck? Gone. A long winding spit sticking out into the lake? Its a short little dune now. Entire trails that used to be wide enough for a few people to move shoulder-to-shoulder? Single-file jobbers now. Garlic Mustard is everywhere. Ick.

All told, we walked miles and worked for every bird. Only 65 species were tallied, including the Orchard Oriole (left). I would have expected at least ten more or so, but the little "list fillers" were not to be had. Seven warbler species at one of eastern North America's birding hotspots? In May? You have to be kidding! I'm not kidding when I say that Common Grackles and Robins probably outnumbered all other birds combined. No joke. A tough day.

That said, there are always a few highlights. The Surf Scoter on a Tip fly-by was cool and certainly not expected. The Scoter and Oriole were both newbies for Natalie. She also picked out the Red-headed Woodpecker by call. Her addiction is coming along nicely...

A special hat tip and beer goes to her for finding what may be the best bird of the day:

As I blundered forward down the trail, I suddenly realized she was not there. Turning and looking back, there she was, kneeling and peering into the underbrush. Not 10 feet in, bathing in a puddle, was the bird in the picture above. This is where I could so lie to all of you (I'm sure some people would!) and tell you that we knew immediately what it was . No. We were not sure at first. Like good addicts, I mean birders, we called out the field marks. "Prominent eye stripe." "Warbler bill." "Pale belly." "Two solid wing bars." When we saw that funked-out blue-green sheen on the back and crown, we were pretty sure we had it - Cerulean Warbler. A female. A quick flip in a field guide basically nailed it.

Sad to say, this bird is getting harder to find. It is one of the species of highest concern in the eastern United States because of a small total population size and significant declines throughout its range. Sadly, it is under consideration for listing under the Endangered Species Act. What a drag. Having a female bathing feet away and recording it with an extremely bad photo? Awesome. Really.

Dinner was at a simple burger dive/sports bar in Windsor. Why there? Charley's Brew Pub and Grill was worth it... I guess. Brewpub. How many beers does one have to brew in order to be considered a brewpub? Yup, one, apparently. Needless to say, the "Time Out Lager" (#745) was stunningly average but it certainly hit the spot.

A long day. A so-so day for birds. A great day to be outside. We'd do it again in a minute.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Greats And The Not-So Greats

Impressed with the first meal from Jamie Oliver's iPhone app, I was eager to get going and try a new one. Oh, but why not make it a "new meal with a beer and cheese sampler night!" Yeah! Great idea!

In short, the Sausage and Zuchinni Carbonara is a total keeper. Gut that sausage, stir fry it with the zuccs, and add it to the pasta with the carbonana sauce. Very easy. Very well done. Unfortunately, the bacon did not cook as well as expected. As it was eaten, it was gingerly picked out. I can't believe eating near-raw bacon would be a good thing! For future attempts, the bacon will be cooked either seperately or with the sausage. In any case, I'll be making it again.

Unfortunatley, the beers were not as good as the dinner. Raspberry Celis (#741) and Celis Grand Cru (#742) from the Michigan Brewing Company were average or below (a "3" and a "2" respectively). The Raspberry was just was too tart and "puckery". Sure, hops might pucker the ole kisser, but a fruit tartness in a beer doing the same thing? Boy, I'm not so sure. The Cru? I have no idea what to make of it. They claimed it was a Belgian Strong Ale, but I thought it was a just a powerful wheat. There was sort of a powerful alcohol bite to it. I just don't get it.

Keeping with the theme of "huh?", the Trout Slayer Ale (#743) from the Big Sky Brewing Company was, well, fishy. Right from the beginning and the barely present aroma, this beer just did not do much. While balanced, there wasn't much to balance. The body, the bite, and the finish were so subdued, I struggled to figure out what to call this beer. I can't say it was bad - there just wasn't much to describe. Moose Drool it is not. 2 out of 5.

Great pasta with 3 not-so-great beers. I'll guess I see what happens on Monday when I try some more new stuff......