Wednesday, August 27, 2008

vacation week 2

I traveled a lot last week. From my current home in New York to my childhood home in Rhode Island to vacation in Maine to my in-laws' in RI and back to Brooklyn. I had a great time with my family, revisiting last year's hotel at Old Orchard Beach. We spent time at the seashore, a lot of time at a huge and gorgeous salt marsh, and a little time in the woods. I didn't see a whole lot of birds, but I got to share some good birding time with my youngest sister. The first morning we woke up there, my dad called me from the next room at 4:45 a.m. My youngest sister Katherine, my dad, and I pulled our clothes on for some early fishing (and for me, birding). I've never gotten up with or before the sun to see the birds, because generally I'd be alone in the park in the dark if I did so, and that's a pretty early wake-time for me. So it was a great opportunity. We drove around looking for bait shops, got eaten alive by mosquitoes, and watched the sunrise. Dad didn't catch anything that morning, but I did see a semipalmated plover running up and down the slope of the beach. Here's a nice shot of my dad and the sunrise:

When Dad got tired of being bitten by mosquitoes, we drove to a small bird observation platform by the side of the road. Katherine came with me and I got to show her some really neat birds - belted kingfishers, American goldfinches, cedar waxwings, great egrets. What amazed me about early birding is the ease with which we found birds; a good number of species that would take me about an hour or two to match in the afternoon we were able to find in about fifteen minutes. Also, I think Katherine is slowly becoming interested in birds, so I may have a pretty reliable bird-friend when we're together. Here's a shot of the new morning sky reflected on still marshwater; it looks almost exactly the same if you turn it upside down.

Later that day, we went to the Scarborough Wildlife Management Area for fishing, birding, and a walk on part of the extensive East Coast Greenway. The colors of the landscape here were simple and vibrant. Blue, green, white.

I could see no osprey nests and that seemed strange to me. Here I saw crows, cormorants, egrets, herons, goldfinches, and a few small flocks of some kind of sandpiper. Here are my notes: flocking birds, white under, beautiful patterned brown + rust on wings and back. Lighter face and throat, resuming pattern on head. Light eye stripe, dark eye. Dark beak as long as head. Yellow legs. Buffy speckled breast. > Sandpiper! What kind?? It was hard to get a good photo; I just wanted something to look back on when I consulted my field guide. Now I know that the differences between some sandpiper species are very subtle.

We visited that marsh again later on the trip for the beauty and the fishing. My dad didn't catch anything for the whole vacation. Well, a crab, once. All the Maine fishermen he chatted with told him the best fishing they ever did was in Rhode Island, where he lives! My dad came to the conclusion that there are no fish in Maine, because all the stories the Maine fishermen told were about their grandfathers' big catches and nothing more recent than that. I was starting to believe him when I spotted what I at first thought was a gull over the marsh, but upon closer inspection realized was an osprey. I thought, "Well, there must be fish after all!" The bird flew quickly out of sight and I didn't see another osprey the whole trip.

We also did some letterboxing on this adventure, which took us to Fuller Farm. As we came down a hill close to the entrance, a biker coming up the hill motioned us to slow down. My first thought was speed trap, but imagine my delight and amazement when this showed up in the road:
Katherine, who has no fears about animals, wanted to just pick it up and move it to the other side. My mom, who is practical and wise, forbade her. I imagine that turtle would be a lot heavier than it looks. Also, animals can move fast when scared, and that guy had some pretty serious claws. We stuck around to make sure it didn't get squashed by cars as it crossed the road.

Fuller Farm is a big tract of land encompassing several types of habitat, including open fields, wildflower meadows, and forests. It was a scenic hike to get the letterbox, and here are some things Chrissy and I saw along the way.

This awesome butterfly, which looks like it belongs in the fritillary subfamily:

A tiny toad I found in a big forest:

At the carnival at Old Orchard Beach, a lot of these guys hang around, looking for junk food handouts...herring gulls?

We spent our last day at Two Lights State Park, searching the tide pools, climbing the rocks, eating various berries. I saw a raft of brown sea ducks with barred plumage -- common eiders, I think. Cormorants and gulls flew by, a solitary crow perched on a dead limb. A few sandpipers hopped and ran on the rocks. Not much bird activity otherwise. But it's a gorgeous landscape.

By Saturday we were back in Rhode Island, gearing up for my grandmother's homemade clamcakes and Manhattan clam chowder. What a treat! We played bocce and jai alai and sat and visited outside for several hours, over the course of which we saw several red-tailed hawks and a turkey vulture. The hawks gave us a good show, flying directly over the house and seeming to pause for our admiration.

That about wraps it up. I did promise you more freckles, and here they are in a "serious-face" photo taken by my sister Bethy:

Friday, August 15, 2008

vacation week 1 wrap-up

Well, in a few hours we're off to Rhode Island for a day before our trip to Maine. I can't wait for sun and sand, birds and letterboxes, and spending time with my parents and sisters. I should have considerably more freckles when I return. But I can't leave you without sharing this week's adventures in Prospect Park!

Monday, August 11
I spent a few minutes on the Terrace Bridge, overlooking the Lullwater in the direction of the boathouse. Here I saw a pair of eastern kingbirds being vying for dominance with s pair of birds with yellow breast and belly, dark eye and dark longish beak on a dusky yellow head, and black wings with white wing bars. I didn't really know what they were until I looked closely at the beak, which seemed distinctly oriole-like in shape. A glance at my guide later confirmed a pair of juvenile Baltimore orioles. I also saw two green herons perched on a fallen branch over the Lullwater. That's the spot I usually see a black-crowned night heron, so the greens were a nice surprise.

Tuesday, August 12
I've begun making Lookout Hill part of my regular routine. I love the reward of the two wildflower meadows after huffing and puffing my asthmatic self up that big hill. On my way up, I was enveloped briefly in birdsong by several young and ruffled black-capped chickadees and more young Baltimores. In the wild meadows above, many butterflies, a few wrens, and several American goldfinches made merry. Here is a butterfly that looks surprisingly like a leaf. Later, on the bridle path at the foot of Quaker Hill, I found an American restart, but a female or first-summer male, I'm not sure. I had great luck at the back of the Upper Pool in finding cedar waxwings. I also tracked down something that I knew would be a northern flicker once I found it; that white rump in flight always gives me a thrill. The two green herons were present again at the fallen log. I watched a good-sized turtle bask on a rock, extending one hind leg parallel to the water for a very long time. I have no idea why the turtle did that. Turtle yoga?

Wednesday, August 13
I saw a lot of the same species as earlier in the week, with a few additions. Behind the Upper Pool I spotted a tiny black-and-white warbler creeping up a tree trunk, then another, and another. These guys were all over the place. It seemed like the feather coloration was incomplete, but from the pattern of the stripes and the pattern of their movement, I'm fairly sure they were black-and-whites. At the rustic shelter on the Lullwater, I watched the green herons fly from their usual perch to a tree branch across the stream. I saw a black-crowned night heron in that tree as well. Then, at the boathouse, I found more ducklings! A mom with two little ones, to be exact.

All week I've been visiting this one area of the Lullwater in an attempt to recreate a lost moment. Sometime last week I saw a hummingbird pause at a red flower for about four seconds. I thought at first that it was a large insect, until I saw its long, thin beak in profile. It took me too long to register what I was seeing, and I was so stunned that I missed the moment to raise my binoculars and the bird was gone. It was only the third hummingbird I've seen in my life, and two of those sightings were before I became a birder. I'll see it well someday.

It was also a great week for hearing and seeing red-tailed hawks. Everywhere I went in the park, I could hear them screaming from high above. That's good, though, because it makes them much easier to find. I spent part of one afternoon sprawled on the shaded hillside of the Long Meadow, using my backpack as a pillow, and gazing through my binocs as the two hawks squealed and wheeled, higher and higher over Quaker Hill, with the occasional fast downward swoop. The screams I've heard mostly still sound like juvenile screams, but once I did hear the high keeeee-errrrrr of an adult.

I don't know if I'll have internet access while I'm gone, so you may hear nothing from me for a while, or if I'm lucky, you may get a few short updates. And now it is time to pack!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

the heart of summer

I am smack-dab in the middle of my first of three glorious weeks of vacation from work. Week 1 I am spending in and around Brooklyn, adventuring my socks off. I've got plenty of time to myself to explore and notice the small things, too, because this is also Chrissy's first week of work at his real, in-his-field, two-master's degrees, 9-5 kind of job. We'll be vacationing with my family in Old Orchard Beach, ME, from August 18-22, sandwiched between several days in Rhode Island. My binoculars and I are going to be seeing some awesome things in the next few weeks.

But before that, I've got a little catching up to do with you, my friends.

Here's a nice shot I got on a recent free Tuesday adventure to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Not too much bird action when I went, but the insects (and children running through sprinklers) were certainly enjoying themselves.

As an aside: I am slowly coming to know and correct some of the weird misconceptions I developed about insects over the course of my life. For example, somehow I got it into my head that honeybees sting and bumblebees don't. But I read recently that honeybees sting once and then they die, but bumblebees sting multiple times and don't die! Also the more time I spend around dragonflies, the more I realize that I was terrified of them as a child. I'm very comfortable now, but something about them was scary. Maybe the name "darning needle" evoked a fear of being stabbed or bitten? No. I remember now. The fear was that a darning needle would sew my lips together. What crazy ideas get into kids' heads!

The ducklings of Prospect Park are pretty much all grown up. I took this photo almost two weeks ago, and when I saw the family yesterday, the three young ones' feathers appeared to have completed their transformation. The ducks look like their mother now, just slightly smaller overall and with shorter necks.

And the juvenile swan is growing fast as well. I saw it yesterday and it seemed huge. This photo is about two weeks old as well. I like the composition of this one.

I don't remember which gorgeous August afternoon it was that I encountered this delicious-looking grub. Rob Jett turned me on to BugGuide, which I think will come in pretty handy. After a bit of browsing the many photos, I think this caterpillar is in the sphinx moth family. I give one photo for an idea of scale and one for detail.

August 7th marked our fourth wedding anniversary, and we spent it walking on Plumb Beach and scooting from there to Floyd Bennett Field and back on the bike path. Even though Plumb Beach is riddled with garbage, the place holds some kind of magic for me. It stimulates my imagination in a way that few things do, brings me back to my childhood and early teens, playing in the yard with my sisters with stuff we found. I think that's what it is; there's so much stuff to find at Plumb Beach that my imagination kicks into gear, saying things like, "Well, this jug and this tin can and this fan blade could be made into some sort of water purification system, and what can I use these tubes for? Oh, and I'll need to find something like a tarp to make a shelter. Oh, wow, a ladder, what luck!" Well, now you know a lot more about me than I intended to share. I absolutely love to imagine. Don't get me started on all those abandoned boats!

Anyway, back to the beach. The shore was heavily dotted with semi-palmated plovers. Lots of common terns around too, and a few laughing gulls. It was no use trying to get a good shot of the plovers; they escaped quickly when approached and the wind prevented me from getting a steady shot through my binocs. But, here are some other neat things we found:

a crab whose attempts to reenter the water were rebuffed by the relentless waves

a washed-up jellyfish

a snail stuck to the wall

We ate our picnic lunch on a partially shaded bench under a tree, with our feet resting comfortably on a well-placed log. After a while I felt something on my shin, looked briefly, and shook my leg like hell. I didn't know anything about praying mantises at the time, so I was a little freaked out, especially because the little bugger kept trying to get back on my leg, even after I stood up and walked a few feet away. It seemed like it was gauging the distance between its perch and my leg.

On Saturday, we encountered this mantis at Snug Harbor on Staten Island. I'm glad my first encounter with a mantis was a normal-sized one.

Also at Snug Harbor, a great big butterfly in the hedge maze, an eastern tiger swallowtail, I think

a path to make anyone feel like Mary Lennox about to uncover a forgotten garden

If you've never been to Snug Harbor, I definitely recommend a day trip there. It's a great time of year to go, while everything's bright and colorful. I'll leave you with a photo of my favorite part of this gorgeous property, where I saw a female belted kingfisher scanning the pond and a pair of American goldfinches releasing white puffs from the bulbs of some purple flowers.

I'll have more soon about this week's adventures in Prospect Park!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

random recent birds and non-birds

A whole afternoon to myself and what happens? Severe thunderstorms, of course. So on this lazy Saturday afternoon, since I haven't got a new adventure to detail, I'll share with you some recent photographs of stuff I've seen in Brooklyn and environs.

Here's a bird I "spotted" at the edge of the Reservoir in Central Park. It had lots of spots on its front, and seemed most like a spotted sandpiper of all the sandpipers in my field guide.

This here bird is a mystery to me. It seemed very young, and I think it had small flappy wings that wouldn't yet support flight. My original guess was maybe a juvenile cormorant, but I grew less confident in that the more I looked at picture online of verified juvenile cormorants. This bird was alone swimming and resting at the edge of the Reservoir in Central Park.

Here's a friend I found on my second trip to the salt marsh at Marine Park - a monarch readying for a snack of clover nectar.

When I pass through the Long Meadow in Prospect Park on my way to work, there's a good chance I'll see an interesting insect, just because it's usually sunny and very warm at that time of day. Here's a lovely beetle. I know there are more than 350,000 types of beetles and something like 25,000 of in North America alone, and I haven't found this one in a field guide yet. I love the challenge of a real stumper.

Next we have another lovely entry in the butterfly category. I spotted this one on a sign near Boulder Bridge in Prospect Park.

This little guy Chrissy pointed out to me while pumping gas on Coney Island Avenue late at night. It was about an inch long and very fuzzy.

This is another beetle I found while crossing the Long Meadow - a Japanese beetle, I think. I can't get over how shiny it is. The golden spots at the edge (which I learned from a field guide are not solid spots but little hairs) remind me of something I learned at the Butterfly Conservatory at the American Museum of Natural History. Some of the caterpillars, when making their green chrysalides, adorned the edges with shiny golden droplets, in the attempt to deter birds from eating them. I wonder if this beetle's design serves a similar purpose.

And this is the gorgeous underside of an eastern painted turtle. Chrissy pointed out the turtle to me on the path that enters the Long Meadow between the wildflower meadow and the Upper Pool. We watched it flip itself over accidentally while trying to squeeze through a space in the fence that was much too small to accommodate its shell. At first I was a little alarmed and thought I should help it right itself, but I decided to give it time. It turned itself over easily and resumed plowing into the fence.

Would you look at that? The sun came out! Seeya!