Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Happy Returns

Shortly after moving in to our house seven years ago I ventured into the attic to locate the source of a water stain on the ceiling near the fireplace.  It was late Summer and I wanted to get ahead of more water damage before our wet season started.  Once I ventures in to the gloom and unknown I could see small shafts of sunlight piercing the blackness near the chimney's intersection with the roof line. I had to figure out how to secure the gaping fissures between the brick work and the roofing material from the inside.  The roof at the time was covered with thin loose concrete tiles that would easily break under the pressure of my size fourteens.

During some painful contortions between the ceiling joists and the sloping roof line my eyes adjusted to the dim light.  I could make out several dark tubular objects littering the insulation between the joists. As I moved to look closer I started seeing them everywhere.

My flashlight beam and focus zeroed in on one. It took a second to understand what I was looking at. These dozens of dark objects were mummified baby Violet-green Swallows. I found several nesting sites with some built on top of other nests full of more mummified birds. This was very cramped, dusty and disturbing. The "worst" of the nests was four deep.  I came back later with better equipped to clean up the area and the more I looked the more I found.  To be honest I could not get them all.

  Several cans of expanding foam insulation later I knew that I could not completely seal all of the gaps from the inside enough to keep the rain out or future swallows. It is not that the gaps were to large to plug, I just cold not get to them all

Over the next few years the swallows would return each spring and shoot straight through the now smaller gaps and set up house keeping. I felt bad that by having filled many of the gaps it most likely would make it harder for the young swallows to find their way out of the attic. Fortunately I found that the days around when I thought the young I would leave the nests I left the garage door open half way.  This would allow them enough light to navigate the flight through the rafters to the garage and then drop down and out to freedom.

A couple years ago I made a batch of bird houses with Chickadees and Wrens on my mind. I forgotten about the swallows. When they returned the nest in the spring I realized this tragic oversight. I was out of wood so I re-purposed a two of the unused chickadee boxes by turning them on their side and ova-ling out the entrance holes.   Year after year swallow would fly by in ever tightening circles to inspect the new alternative to the gloomy doom in the attic. Year after year they chose the attic.

Early this Spring the roof was replaced. I made sure the two swallow houses I had placed eight feet off the ground were in good shape and looked welcoming. Spring showers would not let up. Cold weather pushed the swallow's arrival back a week or two then delayed their choosing a new nesting site. Pairs would circle for hours and then disappear for days

Then it happened, as if it had never been any other way. A pair of Violet Green Swallows took over and began to defend both houses eventually deciding on one.  I had been using all of my Jedi mind tricks to project my preference. Laugh if you wish, think of me as a nut but I got what I wanted.

Over the past four years I had been trying to photograph the swallows in the yard with no success.  In this case "no success" meant zero photographs. I had high hopes and delusions for this Spring as I had started working with a new camera purchased in late winter. Eight frames per second is not the fastest on the market but is was far faster then my three frame per second old timer.

The weather during the incubation and the first two weeks in the nest was cold and overcast. The week the babies hatched there were few flying insects to be found. The babies did end up spending extra days in the box.  I do not know if the adults can slow the incubation speed or if the birds just grew slower with less food when they hatched.  Any input out there?

Days before they did leave the nest the sun popped out and the waiting population of dragonfly nymphs morphed within hours and the game was on.  The swallow activity exploded and the babies were saved from certain doom. I dropped everything and used these minutes to get my first pictures.

In the years of failure I took careful note of where the nest box placement would be the best for both the birds and my camera. Now I had a fixed spot in a void that a fourteen gram four inch long bird would pass through sporadically at high rates of speed.  Simple.

For those who are as mystified by the metric conversion, fourteen grams is roughly equal to fourteen raisins or paperclips.  Still?  About thirty two birds to the pound.

 This is "our" reward. I am sure the swallows are happier then I.

The Female approaching the nest box.


The swallows can fly at speeds upwards of sixty five miles per hour. Speeds approaching the nest are much lower but still amazingly fast. This braking technique slows them from roughly thirty miles per hour to entering the hole in as little as ten feet!

 Here is the male on approach.

Here you can see the modified Chickadee house on it's side and the hole reshaped.  Swallows have very short legs and big wings. The oval is much easier to rocket through.

All of these pictures were taken with a wireless remote control.  I found it to be troublesome and unreliable but when it did work it did well. This angle is from above looking straight down.

I was surprised when reviewing the pictures, I could not see anything in the birds mouth as it returned to the nest. This trip netted two dragonflies. Notice that he caught one going in each direction.  Each set of pictures that I took in which two dragonflies were caught at the same time they all were carried this was.  This is similar to pictures of Puffins carrying small fish that I have seen.

So, of course when you catch three you have to stack them however you can.

So,  there is the happy resolution to something that had troubled me for a long time. 
I had two other nest boxes that were successful this year also.
More about those trials later.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Those Fighting Mud Hens

As a kid I did not know really what an American Coot was. Was it a duck?  It swam with ducks, it looked kinda like a duck and in the Wisconsin hunting regulations it was listed as a "game bird" with a daily bag limit of fifteen birds. When I asked my dad he grunted "damn mud hens". When I asked his older brother he was not as nice.

As kids the two of them grew up in remote North Eastern South Dakota.  Both were born in the same dirt floor farm house just as their seven siblings The farm house sat on land that had been in the family over a hundred years. Just as both of them were were starting to walk and talk the great depression crippled the nation.   My grandfather was fortunate and had secured work using his mule team to clear the irrigation ditches of weeds for the government. The work was hard but it was a steady job that took him away from the farm. My dad and uncle filled the gaps the best they could. Their most important task was caring for the mules the second was supplementing the families food supply.

They employed a variety of snares and traps to catch small game for food and fur bearing animals for cash.
They could make "good" money with the hides of  Snowshoe Hares in South Dakota during the winter.  Solid white hare skins in the winter brought two cents per hide, brown and white hides of the Fall and Spring hares brought and a penny and a half and brown hares of Summer secured one whole penny. They worked together and after a particularly hard winter came up with enough fur money to buy a .22 cal single shot rifle and one hundred rounds of ammunition. That brought in more fur money as well as meat from larger game.When times were really tough and nothing else could been found to hunt they turned to "mud hens".

As adults looking back on the hard times they both shared, it was evident there was a level of shame and disgust. For them it was a social stigma and was not something they wanted to talk about.   Carp also brought about the same feelings but that is a story for another time.

My father's friend and hunting buddy always did joke about cooking mud hens, the recipe was akin to digging a hole in the ground, lining it with fresh cow manure  placing the mud hens in the center and covering them with more manure and then hot coals. Bake for several hours while bullshitting and drinking beer. Then dig it all up, throw the mud hens away and eat the manure.  (Does not say much about he taste of the mud hens.)  My father did not say much as we all rolled around laughing, I don't think he never got over it.

Years have pasted as well as my father and uncle, mud hens remain.  For years now I have been subconsciously seeing Coots through the eyes of my father as something to be berated and avoided. 
Our culture has only a few references to coots. The first one I ever heard of was "The Fighting Mud hens" a base ball team mentioned in the television series M*A*S*H in the seventies.  I later learned that there really is a baseball team in Toledo Ohio called the Fighting Mud hens.

So, is that it?  They taste bad and they fight?

Recently I happened upon a mixed flock of American Coots and Norther Shoveler ducks  at a nearby lake. The light was good and I thought I would watch for a bit.

At first glance there is not really all that much to see. American Coots feed in the shallows at the edges of water bodies "mud" and they bob their heads when they walk and swim "hen".  They make a variety of clucks, grunts and muffled sounds that are not very melodic or romantic. Mud hen not a very flashy nick name nor is it all that demeaning. Since the coots all look alike and they don't look like much, it takes a bit of observation to figure out what is going on in the life of a coot. 

American Coots are a dark gray water bird with a black head and white bill. Found mostly near fresh water through out the North American they are abundant and not threatened  or endangered.  I would assume that if they were a bit tastier that might have changed their status.

In flight they are just as drab as walking, sitting or swimming.

They have a shockingly white bill that contrasts with the dark, drab body coloration. If there is a difference between the sexes in their plumage I can not see it, apparently  they can or we would not have any coots

In addition to aquatic vegetation, insect and invertebrates Coots also graze on grass. The old adage of "you are what you eat" shines through when it comes to mud hens. By feeding in mud the finer nuances of decay, scum and bugs deeply flavor their flesh.  I do not ever recall seeing any animal ever eating a Coot.

One of the most striking features of the coot are their feet. They do not have webbed feet, they have "lobed" feet.  While paddling around in the water during the upstroke the lobes collapse and wrap around the toes bones to reduce drag. During the down stroke the lobes flare open and increase the surface area of the foot to increase propulsion. The pattern and coloration of the feet conjure up visions of something primitive or prehistoric.

This modification of the foot allows them to walk on soft mud and vegetation without sinking. It also allows them to accelerate amazing fast when taking off, fleeing predators and fighting with their own kind.  They can go from zero to ass kicking speed in a blink of an eye!

Their feet also allow them to propel their buoyant bodies from the water's surface straight down in search of food or to escape said predators and attacking members of their own kind.

During the Winter American Coots gather in flocks, as Spring approaches they pair up and become very territorial and nasty toward others of their own kind.  Every species of animal has it's own way of telling others of it's own kind it is trespassing. A snort, a bark, a curled lip or the beating of ones chest but with American Coots attack may be the only warning you get.  Within any given species of animal there is nothing to be gained for the species over all if territorial aggression leads to injury or death. (Mankind excluded.) There has to be some ritual rule that everyone understands to prevent interactions that in the end would prove to be harmful to the species as a whole.  Mud hens do not have talons or razor sharp bills to slash and cut their enemies with.  All they have is a very pointy bill and the ability to accelerate in an instant to drive their point home.

As I watched the flock of Northern Shovelers mill about feeding a lone Coot swam into view. It seemed as if it was just minding it's own business when without a warning that I could perceive it was attacked by a nearby pair.  I happened to have the camera up and ready to go when I captured the following sequence of a coot attack.

This attack style is common. I guess one coot attacking another is not the point, it's the tenacity and duration of the fights that brings out the best or worst in the coot. Even when it appears that there is a victor the fight it is not over.  Driving the intruder far away makes a point not only to the loser but to all who observer the conflict. 

My father often said "life is hard when you shit through feathers". He had to have seen events like the one above many times and understood that with mud hens like us, life can be hard when you go though life with a target painted on your ass.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Butter Talons

Wave after wave of spring storms are trudging their way across the Northwest this spring.  During the lulls in the weather I try to get out and spend time with the animals even if the sun does not.  

The lack of good light does not stop life from continuing but it does make it difficult for the camera to follow.  I recently upgraded my camera to a behemoth that can take eight frames per second as well as take high definition video.   At the same time I figured out how to embed sideshows and videos directly to my blog. 
My pictures are two dimensional, I hope to fill them out with my rambling narratives. Now I hope to add the forth dimension to share with you.   Some things in nature just have to been seen and now with videos I can give you sound also.

For this blog allow me to share with you, breakfast with an eagle.


Maybe lunch will be better.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

I seen em’!!! Part One

It is not the vernacular of the local peasantry but here in the Northwest it is part of our history. During the eighties it was a popular bumper sticker as part of an advertising blitz by a local and  iconic beer company. Though is was probably their most successful advertising campaign they went out of business shortly afterward.  So what was “seen”?  The Artesians.  Supposedly the “Artesians" were leprechaun or gnome like creatures that lived in the Northwest that were responsible for the high quality water and the beer it produced. 

Of course there are no Artesians now or then but this does bring me a smile when I go to the field and see the things I see. Rather the things I see and cannot explain.  After all I live in Bigfoot country I should try to pay a little more attention.  So what about those who see things like the Loch Ness Monster, Sasquatch, Ogopogo, New Jersey devil or the Chupacabra?   I am leaving UFO’s out of this on purpose.

I am not going there.

Setting aside those who knowingly set out to deceive others for whatever their assorted motives may be, people do see things that they cannot explain.  It may due to poor lighting, short distorted mental pictures, fear, excitement, weak minds or an honest to God truth that they saw what they saw.  Regardless  they did see something that they feel does need to be validated. So what was it?  I don’t know but I have recently had two wildlife encounters that I photographed that made me stop for a few seconds and ask, what in the hell did I just see?       
So here is how this is going to work. Below are  photographs for you to look at.  Try to scroll down on to them while looking away so just your peripheral vision can register them in the right spot for you to look directly at them.  Look at the picture for two seconds and close your eyes.  Do not look back. Think about what you saw and wonder how you would explain what you just saw.

Scenario One

You are standing in a coniferous forest clearing in the edge of a military base. Bright white fluffy clouds are drifting across a bright blue sky. With the sun to your left you look up and see a dark colored bird of in the distance flying just above the tree tops in a rectangular pattern. As you move closer the bird completes two of these race tracks.  You close to within one hundred yards and the target bird has not acknowledge your approach. Sun still to your left, bird's altitude 80-100 feet, no vocalizations, larger than the local crows but smaller then the Bald Eagles.

Scroll down for your two second encounter.

What do you have to say?

Scenario Two

You are standing on an embankment overlooking a tidal interchange zone with the tide going out.  It is below freezing with stiff wind to your face making your eyes water. The sun has just crested the ridge line behind you. Fast moving intermittent cloud cover varies the light and the water has a slight chop to it.  You are actively scanning the water at a distance watching for incoming duck that fly down the waterway at high speed. A near by mixed flock of ducks explode in to the air. You do a quick sky check looking for either a Peregrine Falcon or Bald Eagle diving in. No luck. The ducks that took to wing are in complete disarray and trying to regroup. Several ducks further away start babbling nervously. Look back to the water directly in front of you and second this time.......

Then you get another glimpse a few seconds second...............and it is gone forever.

Did you see that...?   Did.... huh....aah...


So by now you have really really looked at them. What-ca you got to say now? Who are you going to say it to?

There is a comment box below, share with me. No one will laugh at you...much.

In my next blog I will give you the answers. I would really like to see your comments.

I would like to know how you think.

If I had not had a camera in hand how would I be conveying these images to you and know you comprehend what I thought I saw?

Here is a parting bonus.

You have my personal guarantee that there are NO trans-dimensional beings in this photograph.  No tricks just a picture taken in the field then you get home up load them all to your computer and suddenly yo have this.....

Tell me, what did you photograph?

Monday, February 28, 2011

Ferry Dock Fight

In the early pioneer days of Washington, two men came to this area and each decided that this would be a great location to build a town and a port on the South Puget Sound. Both overlooked that other locations nearby were better suited. I think that their ambitions and greed may have clouded their judgment.  Never the less they each started to build towns side by side without any safe port or harbor. Each had very different ideas of the how to layout a their towns and as time passed and the edges of the two towns met. Of course when you have strong wills and egos there are bound to be small issues. The streets were at different angles and did not lineup.  Eventually the towns combined and a road was cut through the easement where the two met and was creatively named Union Avenue.

Union Avenue descends a long hill while bisecting town and terminates at the hot spot in my sleepy little town. Jam packed into just a couple of acres you will find the ferry terminal, ferry parking lanes, short term parking lots, a bus stop, a boat launch, a major railroad corridor, a small snack/liquor store and the State Prison boat and barge terminal.  All of this human activity as well as the trash cans and dumpsters are a gold mine for the local crows.   Like us the crows view anything of value as something worth fighting for.

In April of last year I happen upon this violent interaction two blocks from the ferry terminal. It ended when a crow dove in from the upper left and impacted the crow on the right. As a woman walking her dog approached the crows cleared out.

Last week I was passing by the same area when I heard crows sounding an alarm. I drive around with my windows down often to keep an ear to the world.  I approached them unseen due to the fight in progress.

After the fight broke up one of the crows was holding a feather.

It was a prize from the fight.

Though hard to see in the pictures there was a tiny bit of flesh and down feather on the base of the feather's shaft. The crow meticulously cleaned it from the quill.  It appeared as if the crow carefully consumed the tiny morsel of it's enemy.

Was this a symbolic act?

For the crow that lost the feather it may be more then just humiliating.  There is always the threat of infection,  avian pox or physical damage. During the early stages of feather growth the quill is engorged with blood,  if a feather is pulled or damaged during this vulnerable phase the crow could bleed out and die.

The noise of the two groups was deafening. The defeated crow and it's supporters shouted their rebuttals from the safety of a near by tree as the winners regrouped on the grass laughing at their defeated brethren.

Once the feather was cleaned and thoroughly inspected the new owner the crow jumped high into the air and hovered for a moment then dropped the feather falling to the earth behind it. This exhibition was repeated two more times rallying the winning crow's group to cheer in a raucous chorus and gather around the prized feather.

Hurling insults to add to the injury.

The exchange of taunts went on and on. It was very emotional for both sides and as it continued it took on  a very human appearance. Disturbingly human but then again the part of the brain being used by the crows at this point is the same part we use in similar circumstances.  The "lizard part".

The loosing team.  The best I can determine there was a total of fifteen to eighteen crow involved. The winning side had a two or three bird advantage.  More then enough to tip the balance of power.

I taunt you.

I own you.

To the victor go the spoils.  Now for the victory lap around the ferry dock parking lot for all to see.  I wondered how long this crow would keep the feather as it flew over the railroad tracks. My thoughts of following the pair ended when the crossing signal blared out it's warring of an oncoming train.

We all can agree that crows and their cousins are very intelligent and social creatures. When we think of the social aspect we tend to think of the nurturing of the young, cooperative feeding and strong individual bonds.  The positive and good things of society. These things we value as part of our social values.  Crows somehow make it is easy to draw conclusions and parallels to ourselves, until things turn dark.  Then they look more like us then we realize or want to admit to.

I will keep an I eye on the ferry dock "gangs".  I will try to determine how often these turf battles take place and how far do they go.