Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sunny Day

The weather report isn't always correct. Today it kept predicting clouds and snow, even as the sky turned blue from horizon to horizon. That means warmth for outdoor activities, and good light for photography!

This American Goldfinch was eating seeds.

This was the first Northern Goshawk I've seen, and I just happened to have a camera.

The female Downy Woodpecker was seeking insects to eat, and a bit further down the trail a male was excavating a nesting cavity. Birds must be already thinking ahead to springtime. The Mallards were exhibiting their head-bobbing courtship rituals.

The Northern Flicker was seeking a meal as well.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

White-winged Crossbill

Today I went in search of the White-winged Crossbills that had been seen in Caldwell. I wandered around in the very cold weather on an overcast winter day, and at one point I even thought I heard them. I absolutely heard Red-breasted Nuthatches calling to one another, which made it all worthwhile. I stared into the tops of the trees, looking among all the cones where the crossbills would be using their beak to pry open the cones to extract the seeds.

A bird flew down to a small patch of snow to get some water to drink ... and there it was! The White-winged Crossbill. There was a flock of about 19 of them in the treetops, both the red males and the yellow females, but that was very far away for a photo, and against the hazy sky the pictures came out quite badly. Then a Sharp-shinned Hawk rocketed through the top of the tree and they all dispersed and my Crossbill adventure was over.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Idaho Birds

Just a couple of bird photos to share ... I have a tray feeder in my back yard. Pine Siskins have joined the House Finches.

On my last day off I took a walk by the Boise River. There are always lots of birds there, and these are Common Goldeneye and a Common Merganser, getting a running start for takeoff.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Crazy Ghost Cat

The story you're about to hear is true. I've never been one to have a paranormal experience. I'm a believer in science and natural law. I'm not saying I don't have the capacity for wonder or awe or reverence. It's just that I get a little nervous when people tell me they saw UFOs or that a ghost grabbed them by the ankles. I mean, a couple of times I saw a UFO ... I think one was space junk (satellite parts reentering the atmosphere) and another, the most exciting I saw was probably cruise missiles being tested at night flying in formation off the wing of a B52. So, you see, I look for an explanation of that sort, one that makes "sense."

So, I'll tell a story of what happened to me today, and you can decide.

I received a 1000 piece puzzle for Christmas, a wonderful painting called "Birds of our shores." I had a few days off, so cleaned off the table and began to work on it a few days ago. The cats love it, and every so often Jelly Bean tries to sneak a piece off the table. Sometimes she gets one to the floor and I tell her to stop and put the piece back on the table. I assembled the border, and the obvious birds like flamingos that were all the same color, and the names of the birds. Putting together the bird names is fairly easy. Connect "Great Blue" to "Heron." If you know birds, it's easy. Finding where the words go is a bit more difficult.

After a few days of work I was nearing the end today. That's a fun time, because some pieces are just impossible to find in the pool of unassembled parts, and there's great joy in finding the piece with the Mallard's head that seems so obvious only once it is in place. There was one piece like that, that I frequently looked for. It would have been all white, and one side was straight and it would have black type on it ... the name of the bird. Now, I only had a few white pieces left, maybe four, and it still was not there. But, you know how pieces can hide, and there were others that also should have been easy to find, but were not.

So, as I placed the final loose piece I was disappointed to notice that the white piece was not on the table. Maybe under the puzzle? I felt all over ... there was no bump underneath from a stray part, and by swiping my hand all over the surface I found there was not a piece somewhere on the puzzle either. When I awoke this morning, on day three of the puzzle assembly adventure there were two pieces on the floor, one with a few bite marks. So, there were a couple of possible explanations that came to mind as I looked in dismay at the spot where the final piece ought to go. Most likely, Jelly Bean had knocked another piece on the floor. Or, this family puzzle which had been assembled previously and then sent to me had a missing piece, which is entirely possible. Puzzle pieces do have a way of "escaping."

That would be disappointing, to have to confess to my parents that the puzzle they had given me was missing a piece. I hoped the cat hypothesis was the more accurate of the two. I crawled on all fours and looked under the benches and chairs, behind furniture, and under every cushion. Well, maybe under the stove or refrigerator? The closet door has a space under it, and I looked in there. In the playbox? The piece was not to be found.

Through with the puzzle, and feeling the need for exercise I went to the gym for an hour. That in turn made me hungry, so when I got home I started cooking dinner and cut up an apple as a snack. While munching the apple I went over to enjoy the birds that were on the puzzle. The Buffelhead is elegant, and the wading herons magnificent, and ...

The missing piece was in place.

I reached out and touched it.

I got a very strange feeling. Like somebody was in the house. Or something.

But I needed an explanation. Burglar? Burglars don't usually do puzzles. That would be creepy, somebody in the house. Sort of an elaborate practical joke, some neighbor somehow spiriting away one piece, only to return while I was at the gym to put it in place? I have no practical joker neighbors, and nobody has a key to my house. Hmm. My credit card company called today, to report a fraudulent charge on my card this morning, which they had detected and were kindly resolving for me. Uh, oh. Somebody in the house, putting the final piece in place, the piece that says "Masked" on it. (Next to the one that says "Booby.") Or, I'm suffering from dementia, insanity, or some trick of the mind. I can't recall ever having dementia. Does anyone? To test this theory I went to the computer, so see if I had visited the website from which the credit card company told me the $800 in clothing was attempted to be purchased today. To my relief, it was not in my history ... I had not ever visited the site.

So, an intruder. I checked all the doors, and they were locked. I checked, nervously, every room and closet. There was nobody there. I thought about the roof crawl space, but remembered what a mess the insulation made when I opened it for the cable guy. There were no insulation shreds (and some were still jammed in the hatch) on the floor below the hatch, nor was there any sign of recent vacuuming. I rarely vacuum. It's a good way to detect intruders. When they vacuum, I notice it.

Some sort of split from reality? I remember watching "A Beautiful Mind" and recall that the main character in this true story at first did not know he was crazy. So, I could be crazy and just not know it. Somehow this was a bit less creepy than intruders, but honestly still unsettling. I decided to call my Mom on the phone, to see if during our conversation she piped up with, "By the way, you're acting a little crazy recently."

I told her the story, amazed myself at how a puzzle piece could hide and then somehow be there. I used various recollections to refute her theory that I was just tired after puzzle assembly for three days, and that I had put it there myself. Hey, I was really curious myself about what kind of Booby it was. Was it going to be "Blue-footed"? And, it was an almost all-white piece with a very distinct shape. I had been looking for it for days, to no avail. The final four pieces that I placed showed some green water and pond plants that really had no up or down to them. This piece had the word "Masked" printed in black on a white background. It would have been pulled out on day one, turned right-side up, and matched to its other half.

She confessed that a piece had been found on the floor, after the puzzle was reboxed. Now I thought that this was a "haunted"piece. I was fairly sure that this one piece had some vital force, or was being moved by a vital force. I asked what piece it was, ready to name the one in a thousand pieces that would make a case for a paranormal experience. Unfortunately, Dad couldn't remember which piece it had been. Mom joked that he was getting older and didn't remember things as well as he used to. There was that dementia theory again, and even with a family history. She could tell that this was unsettling to me and said, "Well, maybe the cat did it."

Yeah, right. Cats don't have the use of opposable thumbs.

And, I don't think there's a history of puzzle-assembly by cats done in a lab ... probably because they can't assemble puzzles at all. Though Jelly Bean does have her own line of ecofriendly cat toys stuffed with organic catnip. In this photo she helps adjust a catnip stuffed tighty-whitey underpants cat toy for a photo shoot.

"They carry them in their mouth," said Mom. "Then maybe she was pushing it around and it just went into place." I felt that ghosts were a better explanation. I took the piece out of the puzzle and examined it. It had something stuck to it. No, it had a little dimple mark, just like the one on the floor that had been chewed by the cat this morning. Hey, it had a dimple on the other side, too. Bite marks, from a cat's teeth.

I called Jelly Bean and showed her the puzzle with the hole, and put the part on the table. She did not assemble the puzzle, but dragged the piece to the floor and chewed it. I took it away from her and observed that the indentation now had a companion. Two bite marks, from Jelly Bean's teeth.

Sherlock Holmes once said that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

I have asked Jelly Bean if she hid the final piece of the puzzle until I left the house, then when I was away took it up on the table from the hiding spot known only to her and manipulated it into place and pressed it down. Besides lacking opposable thumbs she also lacks the ability to speak English, so I do not know that she put the final piece in place. But, I'm relieved to have an explanation that does not include ghosts or insanity.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


Here's a quick salute to Idaho's diverse rodent population. I thank them for turning the soil and helping things grow. They make great food for the Swainson's Hawks, too!

We have squirrels and chipmunks, and there is more than one kind of squirrel. I enjoy seeing this dark brown kind with the white eye rings.

There are lots of ground squirrels. I've heard people call them "Columbian Ground Squirrels" and in the mountains I think there is a "Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel".

It sure is funny the way they sit on their haunches!

The next photo is a mink. It was playing in the rocks by the Boise River.

And, a Long-tailed Weasel. What a jumper.

The omnipresent Badger. Those can be scary when they charge! But I've never gotten attacked, just scared. Mostly I mind my own business, and they go about theirs. This one is smirking for some reason.

And, my favorite rodent photo ... a Pika. They live at high elevations, harvesting and drying grasses to store for the long, cold winter ahead. They're related to rabbits and can throw their voices. I often hear them in alpine areas, and they can be hard to see. This one was uncommonly trusting, perhaps because it lived by a nature trail at Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Why Bird?

The question is sometimes asked, what is the appeal of birding? Different people offer different reasons, based on their own personal experience. It is a common pass time for many, and I'll offer my thoughts on why people in general bird, and then why I so enjoy it.

If we reflect on the history of the human animal it is easy to imagine a time when recognizing the difference between a poisonous snake and a harmless one could mean the difference between life and death. Remembering over generations where to find the roots and berries at the proper time for harvest was a survival skill. Those with the ability to locate and properly categorize plants, animals, rocks, clouds and other elements of the natural world were the ones who would survive. Natural selection has created brains that are good at categorizing, and with the ability to anticipate future events based on past experience.

Play is a way of honing skills for later survival. Puppies and kittens tumble and tussle in preparation for possible combat in the future. For humans, play can involve such games as "hide and go seek". Birding is the way grownups get to play hide and go seek. Sometimes the bird even makes noises to drive the seeker a bit crazy.

Some people enjoy putting together a puzzle. There's the joy of creating a thing of beauty from tiny bits, from recognizing where a part fits, and the success of placing the final piece to realize the completed, now-orderly whole.

My most recent life bird was the Black Rosy-Finch. This is the second or third year I've sought out the Rosy-Finches above Discovery Park. Never saw 'em until recently. This year I saw them and captured a blurry photo.

I'll leave the philosophy about photography for another time, but there's a lot there as well. Suffice it to say that I would like to have a photo of the birds I have seen, and that sometimes I just see a bird, sometimes I see it and get a poor photo, and sometimes I get a better photo.

Photo or no photo, those who keep lists of the birds they see are "collecting" even if there's no physical bird in hand. In the old days, the birder shot the bird, and stuffed it for the collection. Even Audubon was a bird-shooter. Nowadays there are too many people around, and not enough birds. Shooting them is right out.

In nearly every culture in the world, collecting is a human endeavor. Even some birds collect. The male Bower Bird makes a little hut from sticks and grasses, brings in bits of flower petals, butterfly wings, and shells. It sorts and displays the collections by category, and then invites the female over to view the collection. If she likes the collection enough, well, you get the idea. Birding is just collecting ... collecting sightings.

And, for me it is nice to be outdoors, getting exercise, and enjoying the natural world.

I was asked, about my earlier post in this blog, "How come the Rosy-Finch photo is so blurry?"

My goal, of course, is to get a sharp, clear photo of a bird that identifies it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Sometimes I get no photo at all, and only have my fallible memory to rely upon. It is amazing what birds my memory claims to have seen ... but with no photo, I begin to doubt. As I mentioned, even with a photo, it took me a few days of reflection to decide that this is a Black Rosy-Finch and not the browner Gray-crowned. I liked the photo because it showed the bird on a Cliff Swallow nest. It was taken at sunset, when the birds return to roost, so the light was low. The camera was hand-held and set to an extreme telephoto setting, so even my heartbeat affected the sharpness of the photo. Bird photography is like being a biathlete sometimes, those people who cross-country ski, then pause to shoot, trying to slow their heart rate enough to be accurate during strenuous exercise. The bird was far away. Here's another example photo, just as the camera saw it.

Using photo editing software I cropped the picture, so the bird is more visible. This one is a bit sharper. If I can keep the photo size to at least 640 x 480 pixels, it can be printed as a 4-inch x 6-inch print, and put in an album. Of course, it is nice if the bird would fill more of the frame. And, if it would display some natural behaviour or show some of its habitat, I consider the photo more of a success.

Black Rosy-Finch. I'll keep seeking the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. I know they're out there.