Sunday, February 24, 2013

Crossbills in T-town

Sunday.  No work.  No desire to stay home.  No desire to do projects that need attention.  

Sounds like a great day to go birding!

Over the last few months, Natalie and I have developed a little "route", if you will.  From my place, we head to Elizabeth Park, up through Trenton over to Grosse Ile and then down to either Lake Erie Metropark or the Pointe Mouillee State Game area.  It works well and takes most of the day.  With stops that include Westcroft Gardens, its good 'ole bird fun!

Cool birds?  Well, the immature Red-shouldered Hawk  on Grosse Ile on Hickory Island was nice. Jim the Mockingbird was at the Pine Fresh Car Wash.  Again. The Hooded Merganser feeding at the corn pile with the Mallards at Elizabeth Park  was certainly unexpected. 

But, without a doubt, the coolest bird of the day...wait, the coolest birds of the day... had to be the White-winged Crossbills

Bloomdale Cemetery.  I've mentioned it before. One of these days, we are going to find a Saw-whet Owl in there.  Well, not today, but the Crossbills were a nice consolation prize!

Natalie and I had split up to cover the cemetery in a more timely manner. I was near the front of the place while she stayed towards the back.  After a few minutes, over the din of traffic, I realized she was yelling for me.  Within a few moments, I had done a sprint across the property.  (I figure 95 yards in 3.54 seconds carrying a 74-pound camera.  Suck on that, Denard Robinson.)  I was just in time to see 20 White-winged Crossbills fly away. Isn't that how it always works?

As they flew west, we figured, briefly, they were long gone. Ahhhh, but a few hundred yards up the road?...more conifers.  

Leaving the cemetery, we shot up King Road and pulled over into a service drive and spent a good 15 minutes enjoying the show at point-blank range.  We were so close, and they we so loud, we could easily hear the crunching of the seeds as they plied them open with that goofy crossed bill.  How awesome.

Frustratingly, the cones were all high in the tree so they were never any lower than 10 feet or so. But, we managed.  The above photo was taken from the service drive.

So, this is getting pretty peculiar.  A swarm of White-winged Crossbills in February. In Trenton.  On New Years Day, we had a Snow Goose flying over Fort Street.   In Trenton.  That is two super birds in two months. In Trenton.

Hmmm...I wonder what T-Town will bring us in March?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Birds And Brews, Eh?

This past week found me on the road.  Now and then, when I can, I sneak away for professional conferences and workshops.  This was no exception.  My supervisor, Kevin,  and I shot off to Perth, Ontario for a week.

Sure, I could tell you that I visited the Canadian Museum of Nature and that it was so cool you need to visit it, too.   Yes, I could tell you that I also visited the Canadian Museum of Civilization.  It was every bit as cool, if not more, than the Nature Museum!  I could tell you that Perth, Ontario, the location of the workshop, is every bit as quaint as it was when I was there 4 years ago.  

All that said, lets put work-related stuff aside.   Sure, I paid my own way and learned some things during the week, but lets address the real issues of this blog - birds and brews.

Beer first.  Beyond any doubt,  the best beer of the trip pairs with one of the coolest names for a beer I've seen in a long time.  Flying Monkeys Craft Brewer's Smashbomb Atomic IPA ( #1,405) is a must.  Period.  While their website is a clunky failure, their beer is not.  At 70 IBUs, this brew is made with 4 malts and 8 different hops.  Outstanding!  Get a bottle of this when you can and let those little, winged primates carry you off to beer bliss.  What a treat!

Of course, when you have a good beer, you have to have less-than-good beers, right?  If less-than-good is your game, head to the Clock Tower Brewery in Ottawa. I'm not trying to dog them too bad here, but the beer was, at best, average....or below.  Between the Clock Tower Red, Kolsch, Raspberry Wheat Ale, and the Wisarts ESB (#1,400-#1,403),  not a one jumped out as an above-average brew.  None of them.  A common theme seemed to be lackluster traits.  Nothing seemed to really power home - aromas were light, tastes were dull or lifeless. All beers left you thinking "What is going on here?"    In addition, a sampler is NOT supposed to be 8 oz glasses!  That is a not a sample. That is a half pint!  (For the record, Kevin and I were comparing notes. While he does not keep a spreadsheet, he can appreciate a good beer and knows "dull" when he tries it.  He and I are on the same channel here....)

So, while some of Ontario's brews were a bit disappointing, Ontario's  winter birding did not.  While the birds were not new for me, you cant really pass up the chance to see them. Plus, knowing they were new for Kevin, it was fun to play "tour guide", do the homework, and make sure he saw these winter gems before our trek home.

A few hours of conference "downtime" allowed Kevin and I to hustle east of Ottawa to track down some Great Gray Owls.  After heading to the known location, we found....uh, three of 'em...

Almost three feet tall, they are actually larger than Great Horned Owls, but they don't have much beef to them. While the Horned Owls are killing larger critters like skunks and rabbits, Great Grays tackle little mousies and the like.  Skunks? No way.  

They also have the habit of being pretty "tame".  Using a 400mm lens (which actually functions like a 560mm lens on my camera), staying low, and speaking with Kevin in hushed tones, I was able to secure a few nice photos.  

With the conference officially ending on Thursday night, most people left for home at dawn on Friday.  I totally understand.  A 500-mile drive can intimidate some. Not me.  With a comfy car, good company and good music, 500 miles is nothing.  Besides, Kevin and I had some stops to make. What was the point of rushing home?

Friday morning found us checking out a known location of a Boreal Owl. I can assure you I would not have seen this bird if I did not notice the "white wash" (poop) on the branches. In my experience, poop leads to owls, more often than not.  This poop was fresh. I mean fresh.  Still drippy and wet.  If the bird had pooped 4 seconds later, I would have missed it. 

For those of you who are not familiar with tiny owls, a Boreal Owl could be passed off as a Saw-whet Owl.  It has been done!  All told, the two are pretty similar in appearance.  A few key marks are obvious when you know to pay attention to them.  The silvery speckles on the forehead? Boreals only.  Look at the beak color, too.  "Bone" on the Boreal, while the Saw-whet has a black beak. This individual was a male. Such a tiny little thing...

It should be noted that we were instructed not to post the specific location on the Internet.  The bird's finder had big concerns about reckless photographers (as evidenced by horrible behaviors at the Great Gray Owl field) and other birding hacks harassing the bird and forcing it from the roost.  This bird's location is not public knowledge.

Knowing the Boreal Owl is one of North America's most wanted owl species, and knowing I always appreciate a good tip and like to share info when appropriate, I have decided to detail the location of the bird in direct violation of the finder's wishes. If you don't like my decision, tough.

The bird was in a tree.  This tree  was growing next to another tree.  These trees, in turn, were by a road.   The road intersected other roads. We weren't far from Perth. 

There you have it. Crystal clear and totally accurate directions.  Good luck with your search! 

After a few seconds of viewing (seriously, and two quick photos), we left the Boreal Owl to his siesta.  From there, our travels took us to a power-line cut south of Ottawa.  You've seen 'em.  Electrical lines running for miles across the country side slung between giant towers.  We were told to check a specific set of poles.

As you can see, the pole on the right does not match the pole on the left.  Bingo.

Frustratingly, the poles were tall. I mean tall.  Miles tall, as far as I cam concerned.  The above shot was the best I could manage with my lens.  

So, with two outstanding birds in the bag, a course was set for Oswego, New York. Tucked conveniently on the southeast shore of Lake Ontario, the harbor was the next stop.  With the car thermometer reading a balmy 44 degrees, Kevin and I started scanning the waters.  


The bird on the left is sporting a ponytail. That makes it a Tufted Duck.  In short, the Tufted Duck breeds throughout the Old World - Britain east through Siberia.  Every year, a few (really...just a few) make their way to the New World. After crossing the vast oceans, they usually just plunk themselves down near the coasts somewhere. California. Alaska.  Maryland.  This individual, a female apparently, made it as far as eastern Lake Ontario.

It should be noted that the bird was especially cool as it was a my life bird!  #663, in fact.  It was a life bird for Kevin, as well (as were the Great Grays, the Boreal, and the Hawk-Owl).  That said, we had to work for it.  While we were onsite for over an hour, total viewing time was less than 5 minutes.  Despite the small-ish size of the harbor, it managed to disappear for minutes at a time. Very frustrating.  Plus, with hundreds of Redheads, Scaup, and a small mix of Gadwall, White-winged Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, and Common Goldeneye, it was not like it was the only bird there!

I should also mention the air temperature was 44 degrees. The wind-chill was easily -148 degrees. Maybe even a million degrees below zero. I dunno.  It was bone-chilling and brutal.  Somehow, my right glove had been misplaced.  Yes, the above photo sucks, but that is because the lighting was poor and I could not turn any dials on the camera.  My exposed fingers, frost-bitten in minutes, turned black and auto-amputated. I was left with stumps. Tiny dials and teensy buttons are not easy to manipulate when you have no fingers. (On the way home, my fingers grew back. Amazing....)

So, a little business combined with a little pleasure, made for a super trip. My lists now stand as follows:
Ontario Birds: 248 species (nothing new added on this trip)
New York Birds: 112 species (from 106)
Life List: 663 (from 662)
Total Beers: 1,405 species

It is also worth knowing that the 'ole Chevy Cruze, once again, performed well.  Heading east, with a slight tail wind, miles per gallons averaged 44!  One couple drove their Prius to the workshop. They recorded "only" 45 mpg.  With a headwind on the return leg, the average for our 1,200 mile drive was a still stellar 38 miles-per-gallon.  
Suck on that, Toyota!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

#1,394 - Not At All Mysterious

The Arctic Ocean is simply an amazing place. I was there, so I can tell you this from experience.  While I was not in it for long (I removed my shoe and sock and stuck my foot in the Beaufort Sea ("Bow- furt"), a specific region of the Arctic Ocean), I can say I was there. It was 2004 and I was in Barrow, Alaska. 

Spectacled Eiders, Thick-billed Murres, and Yellow-billed Loons were just some of the bird-goodies I observed on that trip. Snowy Owls, too. Oh, and Red Phalarope.  Cripe - I cant forget the Stellar's Eiders.  
While Polar Bears would have been exciting, we didn't see any.  Heck, any big Alaskan mammal could be cool to see. Even a whale.

Yeah, I guess I should remind you that whales are mammals, not fish.  They are warmed blooded, give live birth, have hair (only eyelashes in this case) and nurse young with milk. They breath with lungs, too.   Fish, on the other hand, breath with gills, are covered in slime and sometimes suffer from "hole-in-head" disease (alot like a Republican). 

Anyhow, one of the most mysterious whales of them all is the Narwhal. I so wanted to see one.

The Narwhal is different things to different to people.  To Native Alaskans, the Narwhal is 20 feet of food.  The flesh is rich in Vitamin C.  In "Elf", it is the kind creature that wishes Buddy well on the search for his dad.  To vacationers, seeing one would be the highlight of any trip, I would think.

In any case, one cant help but to be captivated by that tooth. It certainly reminds many of a unicorn. While the unicorn is completely fictional, that narwhal is the real deal. Maxing out at eight feet in length, the tusk is actual the left upper canine tooth that pierces the upper lip.  Every once in a while, the right tooth does the same thing!  It will have two!

As fascinating as it appears, scientists still don't completely understand its function.  Some suggest it is a secondary sexual trait like the mane on the lion.  Others aren't so sure, but they can't seem to offer up any better ideas.  Primitive cultures suggest that is has magic properties. That certainly can't be it.  Folklore and myth - bah!  Here we are in the 21st Century and its purpose remains a mystery.

I should mention I saw a Narwhal last night. Really. I did.

Brewed by Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Narwhal Imperial Stout (#1,394) highlights six different malts and three hop varieties. The combination is a masterpiece of brewing. 

Fresh crude might be a fair way to describe this beer as it pours. Black. While other beer snobs noted a thick, lush tan head, my beer had nothing of the sort. Okay, whatever.  On the nose, solid notes of both coffee and chocolate were present. To boot, there was an underlying tone of some mystery "sweet". I can't be sure what it was, but it certainly added to the allure of the aroma.  

The first aspect of the tongue that strikes you is the thickness.  Very syrupy and very smooth. Very.  Smooth.  At this point, the chocolate and coffee notes become even stronger while the hops notes (basically undetectable in the aroma) start to move along.  By the time you swallow it, the hops have pushed to the front and you are left with a very satisfying but very subtle dryness.  

What a superb drink. Narwhal, the mammal, is apparently still a very mysterious creature.  Narwhal, the beer?  There is no mystery. Buy this beer.   Five out of five.