Monday, 26 March 2012

Vultures, creepers and wrens - oh my!

So what was I talking about when last I blogged... Birds, you say? Well, here's some more bird stuff.

Vultures are common where I live in southeast Ohio, and they are here year-round. This has not always been the case, but it's all I've ever known since I started birding and paying attention to such things. Folks up in northern portions of the state are starting to see their first Turkey Vultures of the year, but Turkey Vultures, as well as Black Vultures, abound in Athens and Hocking Counties (and probably many other southeast Ohio counties). My interest in Black Vultures in Athens County began around this same time last year when a large group set up camp on and around an empty house along my route to work (click HERE to read that post). This year they continue to fascinate me as I try to figure out where they are roosting around town.

One reliable spot, I have found, is The Ridges on the Ohio University Campus. This area used to be known as the Athens Lunatic Asylum, but now it houses university offices, the campus recycling center, and an art museum, among other things.

One Black Vulture among many, coming in for a landing. Notice the bits of whitewash along the brick wall. Yeah, that's vulture poo.

The Black Vultures that I've been seeing during the past few months have been flying rather close to downtown Athens, and I see them often on the days that I choose to walk Uptown (that's what we call downtown in Athens) for lunch. They swirl around down low, and they are sometimes found flying close to the local middle school, which is a little creepy (don't fly off with one of the kids!)
As I've been studying the vultures these past months, I've been tricked by several different shapes they can take in flight. We mostly think of them soaring, which they certainly do, but I've learned that they look very different when they are actively flying and really trying to cover some ground to get from point A to point B. So just because its wings aren't outstretched doesn't mean it's not a vulture.

Turkey Vulture in a hurry

I've also had to really concentrate on field marks to separate the Black Vulture from the Turkey Vultures in flight. The tail should be a reliable clue (short and stubby on Black Vultures, longer and more round on Turkey Vultures), but sometimes it's not the best indicator for me. The white "finger tips" are probably the best marking to look for, but the light has to hit at just the right angle for that to really show. I'm also getting a better feel for the relative sizes (Black Vultures are smaller then Turkey Vultures.)

One of each. Can you tell which is which?

In case you thought I only cared about the Black Vultures, here's a small roost of Turkey Vultures, also found at The Ridges, but quite removed from the spot where I photographed the Black Vultures. Normally they don't make any noise, but sometimes they do hiss, as the top-most Turkey Vulture in this photo is doing.

Another bird that's been high on my fascination-meter this winter is the Brown Creeper. I've seen more Brown Creepers this winter than I ever have, and have spotted them on at least 15 different occasions. While I don't get the impression that they are terribly uncommon, they certainly aren't as abundant as, say, woodpeckers or chickadees. They put me more in the mind of Carolina Wrens, who seem to have a fairly high territory:bird ratio (meaning few birds to a large-ish territory). One thing is for sure: a Brown Creeper is not a bird that you're going to just stumble upon. You've got to know what to look for, and more times than not it will be their sibilant call note that will alert you to their presence.

For example, there are 2 birds on this tree, a creeper and a woodpecker. The woodpecker is peeking, and I'm positive you can pick it out, but I bet you're in a pickle to point out the presence of the creeper.

Here we are, zoomed in. The cute little creeper is just below dead-center. See why they're so hard to spot? Blend right in with the bark. That's some camouflage, eh?

Please pardon the quality of this photo, but it is severely cropped. This was one of the few times when the creeper was at the base of the tree, and there's at least a little contrast with the moss that's around it. It's hard to see, but there's a band on this bird's leg. I photographed this Brown Creeper at the house of my friend Bob Scott Placier, who is a licensed bird bander. He has banded at least 4 of these little gems in recent months, and they have a steady supply of food at Bob's, so they'll probably stick around until it's time for them to migrate north for breeding season.

On the home front, the birding has been pretty steady this winter, with the same 14 species (give or take 1 or 2) showing up reliably each weekend that I count birds for Project FeederWatch. We had an ice storm a few weeks back, which finally brought a pair of Eastern Towhees and an American Tree Sparrow to my feeders, but otherwise it's been a predictable cast of characters.

Singing male Carolina Wren, the apple of my eye at the feeders. Any time I put something special out, like mealworms or homemade bird dough, I tell them out loud that I've put out something just for them. It's for all of the birds to enjoy, of course, but a special kind of joy comes over me when the wrens show up.

I love watching the woodpeckers at this little feeding station - the distance from the railing is perfect for tail-propping.

And no feeder watching session would be complete without a visit from at least one Sciurus carolinensis, or eastern grey squirrel.

Good birding!


surreal photography

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