Sunday, December 21, 2014

Spruce Grouse in Riding Mountain National Park

One of the Spruce Grouse's primary defenses against predators is the disruptive coloration of its plummage, tricking the eye and enabling the bird's shape to blend with its surroundings.  In addition to this camouflage, the grouse instinctively stops, remaining perfectly still in the presence of a predator.  This behavior makes them very hard to see!  
Christian Artuso, our guide while bird and mammal watching at Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba, was an expert at spotting birds, both finding them as he was driving and recognizing them by sight, movement and sound.  He spotted six Spruce Grouse on the edge of the road, a very exciting moment, a bird high on my list.
We all piled out of the truck with our cameras as the birds scattered into the forest or the spruce branches on either side of the road.  Divided, they were alert and wary but did not leave the vicinity of their flock mates.
Above a male walks alertly toward the forest, and below a female sits motionless under a spruce.  If you did not know she was there, she would disappear, blending completely into the browns and grays around her.
Spruce Grouse are specialist birds that live in the northern coniferous forests, usually in remote areas, feeding on spruce and pine needles much of the year.
Our behavior giving them little reason for alarm, the birds that had flown to tree limbs, one-by-one, flew down to the ground to re-join their flock mates.  Since they seemed to be in no hurry, and even pecked at the ground around them, we, in our separate places, slowly followed.

Walking into the forest with Spruce Grouse is magical.  The thick spruce and pine needles blocked and silenced the relentless wind that had been blowing at 40 mph since our arrival.  Dense piles of peat moss and needles cushioned the forest floor so that with each step, it felt like my feet were sinking into pillows.  Even more fascinating, the grouse returned to foraging and we found ourselves walking along side them as they plucked berries and rose hips from their stems.
An example above and below, of how the female's brown, black and white markings enable her to blend right into the stems and grasses of her habitat.  Without movement, she becomes a clump of dried grass.
This is the third in a series of posts on my journey to Churchill, Manitoba to see Polar Bears including a visit to Riding Mountain National Park.
Also visit my post on the Gray Jays we encountered in RMNP:  Gray Jays--Smart, Bold, Resourceful!

More about Spruce Grouse
Camouflage and disruptive coloration in bird plumage.
Christian Artuso's blog
Riding Mountain National Park
Mooswa Resort
Learn about Polar Bears

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Journey to Churchill to see Polar Bears

Churchill, Manitoba, is a remote town located on the western shore of the Hudson Bay, the southern most limit of where Polar Bears can survive year-around.
Polar Bears are marine mammals that spend most of their time on artic sea ice feeding on their main prey, seals.  The prospect of seeing Polar Bears was my primary reason for traveling to Churchill, but the experience of getting there and the other wildlife we saw held magic, as well.
Christian Artuso and Billie Cantwell, on a very cold and windy day in Riding Mountain National Park, MB.  Winds were blowing at 40 mph and the wind chill was 21 degrees F!  Can you tell who lives in Manitoba?

Our first destination was Winnepeg, MB, where we met our naturalist guide, Christian Artuso, for a side trip to Riding Mountain National Park. Christian is not only an expert ornithologist, he is a wildlife photographer and the coordinator of Manitoba's Breeding Bird Atlas.  He can hear and identify birds from incredible distances, even while driving a vehicle, and makes a "head turning" imitation female moose call!  More about that in a later post.

A glimpse of what parts of the North American prairie looked like at one time, preserved at Riding Mountain National Park (RMNP).  The view directly above and below is within the bison enclosure. We also saw elk running in the distance--a too brief encounter.  They were certainly more skittish than the buffalo.
Fall is rutting season for the hooved mammals and in the bison herd, females (left) and male bison were paired and associating while grazing.
 A female bison and her calf.
 Quaking Aspen framing the sides of the park road.
As we were driving to Wasagaming, the location of our lodging, we spotted a juvenile bald eagle as it was flying in to land in a group of aspen.  Stopping for a better look, we also discovered a golden eagle perched below the juvenile.  This was a spectacular sighting for us all--my first golden eagle sighting in a number of years, and Christian confirmed, a rare sighting for this area.  Of course, seeing two species of eagles in one sighting is a spectacular occurrence anyway!
The habitat surrounding the clump of trees included cultivated fields with harvested crops and clumps of over-grown areas desireable to rodents and rabbits. Prime hunting for golden eagles.
Golden Eagle
The golden eagle took flight first, in a grand sweep across the fields, circling over our heads in such a way that we had great views of its plumage and field marks.  In the image below you can see the golden hackles on the head and neck reflecting in the sunlight.
The characteristic white band in the tail feathers is apparent from this underneath view as the eagle turns.



The young bald eagle, above and below, perched for a longer period and we finally had to say, goodbye.  To have such a lingering look at these two magnificent birds on our first visit to the park filled us with excitement.
We were the last guests for the season at Mooswa Lodge in Wasagaming and were afforded very spacious and comfortable accomodations for two nights while visiting the park.  My lodging had two bedrooms with additonal loft sleeping, kitchen and living area with two sofas--plenty of room for six!
This is my first in a series of posts on my journey to Churchill, Manitoba to see Polar Bears.
Also visit my post on the Gray Jays we encountered in RMNP:  Gray Jays--Smart, Bold, Resourceful!

Christian Artuso's blog
Riding Mountain National Park
Mooswa Resort
Learn about Polar Bears

Sunday, December 7, 2014

An Intimate Visit with a Swamp Sparrow

The Swamp Sparrow is a rusty brown and gray sparrow that prefers wet habitat, such as moist, over-grown farm fields, marshes, water edges and other wet areas overgrown with briars and bushes. These conditions make Seven Islands State Birding Park a great place for wintering Swamp Sparrows!
Swamp Sparrow

The KTOS (Knoxville Chapter of TOS) banding team set up banding nets in this morning's moist cold at Seven Islands State Birding Park to document the current wintering bird population. The word for the day was wind!  BRRRR!  
The morning net captures started off slow and only got slower.  The birds seemed to be hunkering down under cover to escape the 9 mph wind.  In order to capture birds in the mist nets, the birds have to be moving around.      

This is one of the few times I have witnessed a "slow" banding morning at Seven Islands.  Most of the time we are working constantly to get the birds processed as quickly as possible, sometimes without a break until all the nets are taken down.  The good outcome of this slow morning was the ability to take a closer look at some of the birds we did band.
All of the bird images in this post are of Swamp Sparrows.  Above and below you can see the colors of the feathers on the crown of the sparrow.  The cap is considered rusty, but it can also appear almost black in some light. You can see the reason why.  Black feathers are mixed in with the rust ones.
The Swamp Sparrow has prominant rusty feathers streaked with black on its crown, shoulders and back, and has an overall rusty and gray appearance when seen in the field.    
This individual had buffy feathers mixed in with the gray on its face and had an overall lighter appearance, but the rusty features are still prominent.
Below, you can see the dull gray breast feathers with a little more white around the throat and on the lower abdomen on this individual.  These are individual characteristics that you often don't see in the field and are beautiful to observe in the hand.

Above you see the "dusty" or buffy eye-ring and an almost yellowish eye-brow on this individual. Compare the above sparrow's buffy appearance to the darker gray coloration of the sparrow below. These are both Swamp Sparrows and, in the field, they are both recognizable by their rusty cap, rusty back and shoulders and their overall gray appearance.
Below, Billie Cantwell, bander apprentice, holds a Swamp Sparrow for Mark Armstrong, our Master Bander, while he documents the plumage on this sparrow.


Above, a view of the Swamp Sparrow's rusty back with black feather streaking.  
Above and below, banding team members, dressed for the wind, visit with each other and discuss plans between net runs.

Sumac seeds below.
The French Broad River, that borders the park on three sides, is one of the features that helps attract a variety of birds and wildlife species to the park.

Visit my previous posts on bird banding.
Knoxville Chapter, Tennessee Ornithological Society
Visit the Knoxville Chapter of TOS on Facebook
Seven Islands State Birding Park

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Gray Jays--Smart, Bold, Resourceful!

The Corvidae family--jays, crows, ravens, magpies--are fast becoming one of my favorite bird families.  Each time I get acquainted with a new species, I am enamored.
I encountered my first Gray Jay in Alaska, in 2012, on the campus of the Denali National Park Visitor's Center.  Several were scavanging for crumbs around the side walk near where I waited for transportation--a day-making sighting on my last day in the park.  
Gray Jays are a wide-spread resident of North America's boreal and sub-alpine coniforest forests, where they have developed adapative characteristics that enable them to surive the hostile winters.
Gray Jay sketch by Vickie Henderson

Gray Jays feed primarily on arthropods, berries, carrion, nestling birds and fungi, such as mushrooms, but they quickly learn to recognize and seek out novel foods, like cheese, raisins, and bread. They cache food by coating the food with copious amounts of saliva produced by their large salivary glands.
After the food is coated, they tuck it under flakes of bark, lichen, or in the fork of a branch, and sometimes add another piece of bark or lichen on top to cover it.  In addition to their hoarding habits, these jays have thick, fluffy plumage that can cover their legs and feet while perched and their nares are covered with tiny feathers.  The jays in the images above were observed in Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba, in October, flying from perch to perch as they hunted for insects.
Above, you see me in Churchill, Manitoba, also in October, enjoying the surprise boldness of this species.  A succession of jays flew from the trees to take kibbles from my hand on this windy, snowy morning as I stood on the porch at Blue Sky Dog Kennels.

More about Blue Sky and my journey to Churchill to see Polar Bears coming up!
Gray Jay at Cornell
Florida Scrub Jay

Bird-banding at Seven Islands State Birding Park

Bird-banding at Seven Islands State Birding Park
Photo courtesy of Jody Stone

Bird-banding at Seven Islands

Bird-banding at Seven Islands
Photo courtesy of Karen Wilkenson

Enjoying Gray Jays in Churchill!

Enjoying Gray Jays in Churchill!
Photo courtesy of Blue Sky Adventures

Smithsonian National Zoo with one of my Whooping Crane banners and son, John

Smithsonian National Zoo with one of my Whooping Crane banners and son, John

The Incredible Muir Woods near Stinson Beach, CA

The Incredible Muir Woods near Stinson Beach, CA
Photo courtesy of Wendy Pitts Reeves

Me and Denali

Me and Denali
Photo courtesy of Bob King

For the Love of It...

...the sage sees heaven reflected in Nature as in a mirror, and he pursues this Art, not for the sake of gold or silver, but for the love of the knowledge which it reveals.
Sendivogius (1750)

Your Uncapped Creativity...

Your Uncapped Creativity...
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. You must keep that channel open. It is not for you to determine how good it is, nor how valuable. Nor how it compares with other expressions. It is for you to keep it yours, clearly and directly." ----the great dancer, Martha Graham