Thursday, October 25, 2012

This Week in Backyard Birds

White-throated Sparrow

  Every year an average of over 900 Red-shouldered Hawks pass over Lake Erie Metropark (LEMP)  during the September through November hawkwatch.  So it isn't too much to expect one to cross over from Ontario a few miles north of LEMP and get added to my yardlist.  After moving up to top of my most wanted/expected yardbird list,  I finally got one to fly over the yard on Saturday October 20 and was able to get an acceptable photo considering the heavy overcast conditions.  It became bird 121 on the backyard list.  I planned on blogging about it over the weekend but didn't have time.  In the planned post I intended to put on notice any Sandhill Crane or Rusty Blackbird that may read my blog that they just moved up on my most wanted/expected yardbird list.   Palm Warbler if you're out there you seem to have escaped me this year but I'll be looking for you in the spring.
Adult Red-Shouldered Hawk

   Well the Rusty Blackbird must have heard and just about turned itself in to authorities, so to speak, the next day when a flock of Blackbirds flew over and I grabbed the camera instead of the binoculars and captured the following photo.
Two of these birds are not like the others
The two boxed in birds are Rusty Blackbirds in a flock of female Red-winged Blackbirds
Cropped version of previous photo showing two Rustys with a R-W Blackbird for comparison
    The yardlist now stands at 122.

   Here are some other birds that flew over my yard during the past week 

Family of Mute Swans
Flocks of Robins have been flying by every day
Late migrating Chimney Swift
Cooper's Hawk checking out my camera

Blue Jay passing through

Airbus 380?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

More birds

     With a day off from work I got a chance to begin the day with a little bit of yard birding.  The most interesting birds were a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and a Ruby Crowned Kinglet.  While the Sapsucker never got close enough to be photographed, the Kinglet spent a little time posing as she was prowling for bugs.  She actually was a bit too cooperative and saved her best poses for when she was inside the close-focus distance(15 feet) of my 500mm lens.

Female Ruby-Crowned Kinglet
Hunting for bugs

Playing to the camera

    Later in the morning I headed to Lake Erie Metropark (LEMP), hoping the winds which had lightened up overnight would allow for a big hawk migration day.  A respectable but not great total of over 1100 raptors were tallied with Turkey Vultures accounting for over 80% them. 
Adult Red-tailed Hawk
Immature Red-tailed Hawk
Sharp-shinned Hawk
     Let me rewind to earlier in the morning before sunrise, before any birding took place.  On my days off it's my job to feed our three cats.  Since my wife usually feeds them and can only carry two bowls at a time, out of dog range to the basement. The three cats,who hate each other like they're fundamentalist of different religions,  have to take turns eating.  So when I feed them I monitor them until the least aggressive cat, Comet,  gets to eat her fill without being bullied by either of the other two.   
     The cats' breakfast time started out like any other day until after a couple of bites, Comet suddenly walked away from her bowl to the laundry room.   I waited for her to come back and then went to check on her after I heard an unexpected noise.  Here is what I found....   
  This photo may raise a couple of questions, such as:   1) Why is the cat in the washtub?   2) Why is the tube from the furnace's condensate pump duct taped to the side of the washtub?  
   Cats are quirky creatures.  Years ago, the girlfriend of one of my friends noted " Cats would really be strange if there weren't so many of them".   Comet is as quirky as they get.  She never remembers which side a door opens on.  She'll stand for hours looking at the doorhinge when she wants in or out of a door.  She also once slept on a lawnchair during a light snowfall and woke up with half an inch of snow on her.  She will drink out of puddles but won't drink out of her water bowl.  She also spends a lot of time alone sitting on the counter in the bathroom waiting for anyone to come in and turn on the water in the sink so that she can get a drink.    Her disdain for bowlwater leads us back to the first question.  Answer 1): while she was eating she heard the furnace kick on and knew water would be flowing out of the condensate tube shortly. 
    A couple of years ago, a family member (ticketed co-driver from Yellowstone trip) showed Comet that relatively fresh water comes out of the condensate pump tube into the washtub, Comet figured out she could drink from the tube and not get her feet wet if she pushed the tube up along the upper edge of the tub so that the water would run between the washtub and the dryer.  Answer 2)  After a couple of days of wet floor tiles and a flurry of accusatory finger pointing, the tube was duct taped to the inside corner of the washtub when co-driver theorized that Comet was trying to improvise her new found drinking fountain.  
Letting the tube rinse
Refreshing drink

Monday, October 15, 2012

Yardbird #121 - Eastern Bluebird

Female Eastern Bluebird

  This morning the Eastern Bluebird in the above photo became the 121st species on my backyard bird list. It also is the 84th species I've seen this year from my yard.  The 83rd species of the year was a Song Sparrow that showed up about an hour before the bluebird.

Song Sparrow

   Yesterday morning I had a Hermit Thrush stop by to pose for a few photos.
Hermit Thrush
Hermit Thrush showing its reddish tail

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Vultures and Eagles

Adult Bald Eagle

    Turkey Vulture (TV) Migration over Southeast Michigan reaches its peak around the middle of October every year.   Yesterday October 12, 2012   favorable conditions resulted in a total of 10,000  TVs counted at the Lake Erie Metropark (LEMP) hawk count.   As many of the birds passed to the south of the count area my friend Pat Mulawa and I headed south to the Point Mouillee State Game Area HQ to get a better view. 

Kettle Of Turkey Vultures

    Several groups flew almost straight over head providing me with some nice photo ops as Pat scanned the skies picking out other hawks and eagles.

Immature Turkey Vulture  (note dark head)

Immature Bald Eagle showing lots of white on its belly

   Pat marveled at the symmetry of the wing pattern  of the Bald Eagle pictured below.  Later when I zoomed in on the display screen on my camera, I noticed that pattern resembled eyes with the symmetry broken by the eye on the birds right wing (our left) being open and the left wing eye closed in a winking manner.  Eyespot mimicry is an evolutionary defense mechanism where animals with spots that look like big eyes are less likely to be preyed upon.  Animals that benefit from this,  range from Tiger Swallowtail larva to Buckeye Butterfly adults to Four-eye Butterfly Fish to the Servals of Africa.  The pattern on this Eagle's wing has nothing to do with that because it already looks menacing enough and it resides at the top of its food chain.  More likely it has to do with the human brain trying to make sense of patterns.  That's how perceived images of Elvis, Jesus and the Virgin Mary are interpreted as messages from beyond in everything from toast, pizza pans, stains on overpasses, tree bark and  lastly and definitely leastly (I'm not making this up) no disrespect intended...... dog butts.   

Another immature Bald Eagle with winking owl pattern
Uncropped photo of previous bird shows its great altitude more accurately
   The distant birds in the above and below photographs look pretty similar but while I was taking photos of the second bird Pat was watching it with his spotting scope and was able to see the telltale wing patches that are characteristics of an Immature Golden Eagle.  

Vastly different bird at similar altitude

Cropped version showing white wing patches of immature Golden Eagle
    The Golden Eagles migrating through Southeast Michigan are most likely coming from their breeding grounds in Northeast Ontario and Northern Quebec at least 600 miles away. It's always pretty cool to see them pass over. This one here is one of the early ones as the peak of the migration at LEMP is between October 20- November 10.   Show up at the LEMP Hawkwatch site during that timeframe on a day with light winds with a northerly component to them and you most likely will get to see a Golden.  If you're lucky you'll get a view like the one I got last year on October 28 when the bird below flew almost straight overhead at a relatively low altitude.   I'd been trying for years to get that shot. 

Golden Eagle at Lake Erie Metropark 10/28/11
Same bird only closer

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Prepare to be disappointed (or amazed)

   A word of caution - comets are notoriously fickle, spectacular predictions based on early observations often lead to big letdowns.

      On November 28, 2013, Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., the midday Sun may have a companion as it travels across the sky.  Comet ISON (  C/2012 S1) will execute a hairpin turn as it passes 1.8 million km above the Sun's surface.  Considering the diameter of the Sun is 1.3 million km this is an extremely close encounter. If the comet can survive the heat and tidal forces it has been estimated that it may shine as bright or brighter than the full moon.  If it attains that brightness it could be visible during the day one degree away from the Sun.   Of course you will have to block the sun out (by standing in the shadow of a building perhaps), to view it.   The potential of this comet has been compared to the Great Comet of 1680 and the Great Comet of 2007.  It has an uncannily similar orbit to the 1680 comet which sported a 70-90 degree long tail and its head was briefly visible during daylight in December of that year.  It has been suggested that the current comet and the 1680 comet may have split from one object in the distant past.

   The Great Comet of 2007 you ask?  How did you miss that one?  Comet McNaught (C2006 P1) brightened rapidly as it approached the Sun in January 2007.  This blogger found out about it on January 4th of that year and after making 3 unsuccessful attempts to view it through mostly cloudy skies in bright twilight I finally succeeded on January 10 and captured a few photos.
1/10/2007  Comet McNaught  5 minutes after sunset

1/10/2007 Comet McNaught in bright twilight
     As winter weather goes in southeast Michigan the skies clouded over for the next week and I never saw the Great Comet of 2007 again.   Here is a link to archive from January 2007.   In the middle of the page there is a photo gallery of the comet.  Perusing through the gallery you can see photos taken in midday (around page7) in which the comet is clearly visible while only 5 degrees from the Sun.    After its close approach to the Sun the comet went on to become a spectacular sight in the Southern Hemisphere as shown from page 11 onward in the above link.

   On January 10, 2007 Comet McNaught brightness was estimated at magnitude -3 or -4.  The brightness of celestial objects is measured on an inverted exponential scale., where  lower numbers indicate greater brightness.  For example an object of magnitude 3 is roughly 2.5 times brighter than a fourth magnitude object and every five steps lower on the scale equals one hundred times brighter.  For example the full moon shines at -11 magnitude, while the Sun shines -26. The 15 steps (or 3 steps of 5) of magnitude difference makes the Sun 100 x 100 x 100 or 1 million times brighter than the full moon.   The preliminary estimates of Comet ISON's predicted maximum brightness  next November range from -6 to -16.
    Comet experts say there really won't be any tweaking of predictions possible until August of next year. For now it's just a waiting game.   I tend to be a pessimist, that way I'm never disappointed.   I don't have time to be disappointed because I'm usually too busy disappointing others.  Therefore, I foresee the grand expectations fizzling out as the comet burns up before it's solar encounter.  I will however be ready to document the apparition if the Oort cloud visitor gets anywhere near it's predicted brightness. 
   To be continued......