Backyard Brief: Can I just say?

Can I just say:

On first seeing that river kingfisher illustrated in flight on the March page of my wall calendar, I felt such a singular joy as might only find its mate if the bird should appear suddenly, out of its home range, as I walk along a local stream?

Thank you Marjolein Bastin and Andrews McMeel Publishing. And thanks, Mom, for the calendar.

kingfisher-vishunt_19377769093_c9cb23b4d3_cPhoto credit: Andy Morffew on Visualhunt / CC BY

I still think this species should be called malachite, a bird whose plumage is actually less green and more bright blue. The malachite kingfisher was named for its black and blue crest, which I suppose looks green in contrast to the rest of its head and back. The most common American species is the belted kingfisher. Smaller than its New World cousin, the river kingfisher is also known as the Eurasian or common kingfisher.

Anyway, I like Bastin’s image so much that I’m keeping the March calendar page up through April.

Backyard Brief: Bird Picnic in Florida

Last week, I was in south Florida with my husband visiting his parents at their Naples condo. They’ve been snow birds for the past five years now. Given the harsh winter we’ve been having, I’m starting to think they have the right idea. It was the perfect break from a senselessly cold March in Ohio, and we had a great time.

One day, we took a trip to Big Cypress National Preserve, just north of the Everglades, to go “alligator hunting,” as my father-in-law put it. He and I share the shutter bug. We made a single stop at the H.P. Williams Roadside Park, near Ochopee. Along with some great reptilian shots and plenty of bird pics, I managed to get close-ups of a butterfly hanging out with a napping gator. The birds included herons, cormorants, and anhingas. I’ll share those photos soon.

After walking the boardwalk, perusing along the river, and snatching our alligators and birds, we snacked at a picnic table in the clearing. With granola bars, Cara Cara oranges, red seedless grapes, and my Weight Watchers snack bars, we observed two smaller birds I could not readily identify. I took several close-ups.

As it turns out, I could not identify them less readily later on either. First, back at the condo, I used Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s bird ID tool at Allaboutbirds.org, starting with categories and silhouettes, comparing the flycatchers, sparrows, warblers, and finches (though I knew that was less likely based on beak shape) to my photos. I’m less skilled at identifying birds by call, and I couldn’t be sure any sounds I heard came from the birds observed.

From a clear silhouette in the branches, my first instinct said this was a kind of flycatcher, but my initial search produced nothing definitive. The question hovered, niggling.

It took coming home and browsing through both my Sibley guide and the Kaufman, looking again at my shots, to narrow it down and draw some conclusions.

Now I’m pretty sure I’ve got them right. After finding them in the print field guides, I went back to Cornell’s site and looked them up directly.

A male eastern phoebe

and a male palm warbler.

The phoebe, sure enough a kind of flycatcher, preferred the branches of the tree we sat under. The warbler’s stay was briefer and solely on the ground, resulting in fewer, more difficult shots and blurrier images.

The distinctive parts of the phoebe I knew to look for in the books were the smooth black eye and dark cap/face, lighter undersides and throat, relatively small size, and thin, short beak. It took some sifting, as the bird is rather plain looking overall, but experience and an understanding of field guide maps got me there. Looking closer with the guide, it seems this one was also a juvenile, due to the yellowish undercarriage. The Sibley guide uses call-out labels on their illustration of the bird to emphasize the gray “smudge on sides of breast,” the “yellow belly,” “dark head,” and “dark tail.”

The other bird I suspected was a warbler of some kind from the start, as I’d studied those through our local park’s program on warbler identification a few years ago. The key pieces were rusty cap, yellow facial streaks, yellowish rump, and larger size. The palm warbler, like most warblers, has quite a unique set of features, a little more striking than the phoebe’s. Among other features I observed, Kaufman notes the “well-defined pale eyebrow” and the fact that the palm is among those “warblers that stay low.” His low profile and brief stay account for my not seeing the “yellow undertail coverts” and “tail-bobbing action.”

Both guides indicate two types of palm warbler, brown western and yellow eastern. This specimen fit both descriptions in some respects and neither in others. Its position in southern Florida, though it is a rarity in general, would have assure me it’s the eastern type, had the maps not shown a greater prevalence of westerns in the region. Perhaps by “eastern” they simply mean exclusively so. Most likely, due to a duller overall yellow than the very golden illustrations and photos in the guides for the eastern, this was a brown, or western, palm warbler male. The white sides are tell tale.

Birds I’d never seen before up close from my own perch in Ohio, though phoebes and palm warblers are both possible to find here, just sort of hung out with us at this southern Florida park in the preserve. Nice to make new discoveries.

Speaking of new discoveries, in the next post, I’ll share the most dramatic one, which occurred at the condo community, on the other side of the pond from our unit.

And, out of curiosity, I looked up poems involving the phoebe. My first result was this fun audio reading by poet Valerie Gillies comparing Scottish species to their American cousins, emphasizing movements and calls. Delightful Scottish trilling.

Sources Consulted

Big Cypress National Preserve

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds

H.P. Williams Roadside Park

Kaufman, Kenn. (2000). Kaufman field guide to birds of North America. New York: Hillstar Editions L.C., Houghton Mifflin.

Sibley, David Allen. (2000). The Sibley guide to birds. National Audubon Society (Ed.). New York: Chanticleer Press, Inc., Knopf. 

Backyard Birds: Cleveland National Air Show

From pain comes artistic gain.

I haven’t been blogging lately. Instead, I’ve been recovering from neck and back pain after combing the sky over Lake Erie for the “birds.” The 2018 Cleveland National Air Show brought packed crowds to Burke Lakefront Airport over Labor Day weekend. In 90+ degree weather on September 1, I tried to capture the four final acts of the day. My videos were a wash, but some photos came out. Was it worth it?

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Swan song for a seasoned stunt pilot, Sean D. Tucker – Power Aerobatics Oracle Challenger III

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A tiger caught in the ring – Twin Tiger Aerobatic Team

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U.S. Navy Blue Angels – FA-18 Hornets

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On the ground, a huge “bird” out of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio

A jet expert and flight simulation & training engineer, my spouse would have liked to see more, but we got a late start on that hot Saturday. So much the better for me and my spine. When the people dispersed, the seagulls swooped in to reclaim their backyard and scavenge the smorgasbord of leftovers. For our part, we headed to the Cheesecake Factory at Legacy Village, east of downtown Cleveland and the airport. The highlight there for me was the pumpkin cheesecake, just come on the menu for the fall season.

As I soldiered on through the spinal dis-ease of Sunday morning, we met with friends for brunch and the afternoon, followed by dinner at a Hungarian family restaurant in Shaker Square called Balaton. Their food was so disturbingly good I forgot to hurt.

With a first night separated from my co-dependent dog (with his co-dependent Ma), whom we left with my husband’s parents over Saturday and Sunday, it was an all-around very good weekend getaway. Two weeks, a massage, and a chiropractic adjustment later, and I’m on the mend at last. It’s good to be back.

 

Backyard Brief: Unearthed, Part 2

As I noted in Part 1 of this brief, it was in my vigilance following Ethan’s excursion under the deck that something peculiar came to light.

May 18, 2018, the following day

Ethan was lying down in the grass near the lacecap hydrangea, tether at full length, looking off to the next-door neighbor’s yard, when a small bullet of gray and brown fur shot under the deck from that direction. His eyes followed intently, head turning like a panning camera, but he made no attempt to pursue the creature. Our previous dog Elyse had had more prey drive than he, another thing to be thankful for.

Carrying the bowl of my mostly eaten cereal sprinkled with strawberries, I walked down the deck steps and around past the dog, still lying calmly by the lacecap. I scanned the deck base and beneath its edges for movement or sound. Unsurprisingly, I found neither. Dark shade and critter quickness had thwarted me again.

But while I stood there pondering the great unknown at my feet, I noticed a length of black corrugated pipe peeking out between the steps from under the deck. Not belonging there inherently, the pipe had once sprawled, cascading down the steps, set aside to serve as a tire for Ethan to practice jumping through for agility training. The construction project yet to begin, the pipe found its way under the deck some time last fall.

Now that agility is again in full swing after our winter break, I decided it was time at least to remove the pipe and ready it for use. Out of sight, out of mind. In sight, less out of mind. That’s my motto.

As I drew the middle of the plastic pipe between the steps, I heard minute rattling, as of dirt and debris, trickling across the ridges. As I dragged it out onto the grass, I shook it a little, producing clusters of pebbles, sunflower seed shells, and what looked like grass. I shook harder, and the rattling became knocking against the pipe. Shaking it even more, I soon became captivated by what fell out. Bones.

I had found a dead body.

Bones, sunflower seed shells, some acorn shells, apparently dead grass used for nesting, and more bones rattled their way to the thick spring grass. The largest intact bone among these was a skull.

I bent down to identify the species and determined by its size and shape that the head had once been that of a rabbit. A broad, flat crown, long sloping snout, large side eye sockets, and ear holes oriented vertically very close behind the eyes all pointed to the Eastern cottontail. Months and months ago.

The color was a ruddy brownish mottled with tanned bony surfaces that had once been whiter with life. On close inspection, the skull proved porous, especially along the crown behind the eye socket.

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After further shaking, one of the jaw bones greeted me. Alive and in one piece, the cottontail rabbit has a wedge-shaped head with an angular jaw. Just visible in the image above, to the left of the skull in profile and attached to a jaw bone off left, you can see the sharp, white tip of a lower incisor partially obscured by criss-crossing blades of grass.

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During this whole process, most parts I had successfully ejected with the first violent banging, hand to pipe, then pipe to ground. Along with a complete set of bones on a very hairy-looking foot, out flopped a posse of a hip/pelvic bone, the other jaw bone, its tiny row of teeth visible on one side, and some leg bones bound up in a conglomeration with several spider egg sacks, seed and acorn shells, and invisible webbing. All of the earliest results.

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Nothing alive. Nothing but spiders, possibly insects, bacteria, seemed to be living there now. The bunny, yes, still a young rabbit, I thought, might have become injured and crawled in there to die, or crawled in to escape the elements and died of hypothermia, or became stuck, terrified and confused, and died of fear and starvation.

I saw no great ecosystem tragedy in it. Although they have a high mortality rate, rabbits are plentiful, as the live brood of tiny, nestling bunnies in the base of our front yard’s ornamental grasses–and all the hopping, white-tailed life in this neighborhood–attest. It’s simply life and death, in the wilderness that is wildness to these animals.

But clearly, it seemed to me, something else had used the bones, and the seeds and dried nesting grass, to make itself a home. I suspected a chipmunk, perhaps more than one generation’s worth, for the bones have been picked clean and dry for a while now. Perhaps one or more creatures had eaten some of the flesh before one made a home there.

I recalled last fall, seeing a chipmunk dart out from under the deck to the bird feeder’s base, gather bulging cheekfuls of seeds and seed shells and dart back under again. I’m sure it happened much more often than I saw. Could that have been the chipmunk and this its home?

I suppose it’s possible some clever critters besides spiders had clung for dear life to the ridges of the corrugation while I gave them the ride of their lives, and perhaps slipped away once peace returned for a time, both the dog and myself in our own home again.

The weight and the noise tell me some remains, and who knows what else?, remain inside the pipe. Tomorrow, I will flush out the rest with the garden hose. I don’t anticipate any further surprises, now that I know what to expect. I’ll be sure to let you know if the unexpected awaited us.

Several days later . . .

The garden hose. Such a useful tool.

On the same side of the yard where the living rabbit had shot under the deck, I took the corrugated pipe in hand and inserted the nozzle end of the hose into one end, setting it to “jet.” A few stray bones—two leg bones joined at the knee, perhaps a lone clavicle—made their way out, along with the brown fuzz I thought was grass.

Remembering the bulk of materials must lodge somewhere off center inside the pipe, I flipped it around and ran the water through again, the other end aimed roughly toward our Pagoda dogwood flowerbed.

Success. Out clumped a huge brown mat that flattened, now laden with water, into a raft-like shape, ridged with impressions from the corrugation. A bit startled, I emitted something like “Whoa” and proceeded to blast away at the brown mass. It disintegrated easily, revealing among other pieces a most striking spinal column. This was a moment of definite awe.

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I continued flushing, spreading some of the brown stuff into a pool the flood had formed in the round flowerbed. Ribs, a rib cage, another shoulder blade, and shards of other bones all made themselves visible.

After extracting them from the mess, I carefully rinsed the bones and then returned for stragglers. Pushing at the brown stuff with my fingers, I realized it wasn’t grass or other plant material at all. It was fur. Of course. Rabbit fur. Where would it have gone? So perhaps no rodent had made a home in the lagomorph carcass, though the seed and acorn shells suggest at least temporary refuge.

After I allowed the bones from this second extraction to dry on our deck table, I inspected them again, taking some pictures, and found what I believe to be evidence of the cause of death. The spine was somewhat flexible but more flexible in the middle than across the whole. Looking closer, I saw two total breaks in a set of adjacent vertebrae—a broken back, most likely from either a car strike or animal attack. The rabbit had gone into the pipe to die, then, after all.

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After assembling the bones neatly in different arrangements on the table, I was cursing myself for not having saved the skull and other first bones discovered, so that I could try to reassemble the nearly complete skeleton.

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I made the most of the three separate spinal sections and hip and leg portions, putting the rib cage back together. The result is shown below.

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The spine measures a full nine and a half inches with all three parts, from coccyx to the top of the available rib cage. An adult rabbit, I think.

I relished the opportunity to play biologist, quickly overcoming the mild squeamishness I felt initially. It helped that there was no flesh or blood. Still, after freeing the parts from inside the pipe, rinsing them, and laying them out in the sun, an unpleasant odor became apparent.

“Easy Ethan,” as our dog trainer calls him, lounged beneath the table while I worked to examine and arrange the bones. His faint curiosity melted before his overwhelming inclination to relax. He’s a relentless sunbather. Perhaps his nonchalance also benefited from a long-time familiarity with these odors as a natural part of his backyard domain.

Either way, despite his unstoppable appetite for grass, that alarming under-deck excursion, some clumsy, mouthy playfulness, a tendency to destroy new toys, and a little minor digging, as dogs go, Ethan is truly a keeper.

Further Afield

Another animal, this time fully clothed, lay in our path on a dog walk through that channel of power lines that cuts through the middle of the neighborhood. In March, we saw a mostly intact wood duck lying dead in the clearing.

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It saddened and puzzled me in particular for two reasons: First, these distinctive, beautiful ducks seem fairly uncommon in our area—I had never seen one in the metro parks, for instance. And second, if the power lines were the culprit, it seemed odd that the bird hadn’t disintegrated more. Practically every last feather remained on board.

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I briefly considered that it could be an abandoned hunting decoy that had been used for practice in the field, but the bird was real. Just not alive. Now reduced or elevated to another artifact for my experiential collection, the body was cleared away by someone or something within days of our encounter.


For the first half of my rabbit bones discovery adventure, visit Backyard Brief: Unearthed, Part 1.

For more bunny blood and gore, see:

Happier rabbit- and bird-related posts:

Backyard Brief: Unearthed, Part 1

As the air warms and my dog waxes bold and curious in his wanderings on our property, he leads me to discover things I might never have imagined.

Two days ago, I went outside to check on him, tethered as usual to the deck, but I could see him nowhere, nor any trace of his tether.

As we so often do these days to prevent or get him out of trouble, I slipped on my clogs and grabbed the baggy of kibble in case I needed to coax him home. In the 10 months we’ve had him, Ethan has never run away, never broken his tether or even tried to.

Once, he managed to unlatch his collar, leaving it secured on the tether while he zoomed over to greet the neighbor’s dog. Another time, he became loose through the garage and sauntered back around to the same dog. Not to the road.

Now, though he enjoys sunbathing, Ethan seeks the cool shade as well, and has taken to digging, which I imagine feels luxuriously cool on his hot paw pads. (We’re getting his and my feet a kiddie pool for the summer.) So far, only minor patches, hardly even holes, have resulted—a couple of times in the grass and this latest in the flower bed bordering the deck.

Luckily, the effect was to loosen only a weed rather than a perennial just next to the divot. Cooling off his feet, having a fun dig, and, it would seem, creating just enough space to slip under the deck steps into the gap beside the wood lattice work.

When I found no tether and no Ethan, I called for him, thinking at first that he had rounded the corner of the house down the side yard. But the tether was still attached at the base of the deck, the rest of it tucked under toward the dog.

I crouched down to investigate and query the fur child, who promptly looked up with his dopey ears perked, though his body faced away from me. It appeared as if a little smudge of dirt, or something less benign, added to the outline of his nose. I could just see it in a shaft of light penetrating the cracks through the deck boards.

There are several spare boards lined up under the deck, and he had crossed many of them to reach this far. The tether was most of the way under and the dog most of the way to the other side, traveling the length of the shelter.

Our deck has an irregular shape, with five sides, not counting the house sides where a bay window juts out on one end and the kitchen sink area protrudes slightly less on the other.

In the bordering flower bed parallel to the back of the house, a limelight hydrangea bush decorates the right side, and a lacecap hydrangea marks the left, where the length of the deck meets a corner on each end.

A few feet farther right, down the length of the house than the limelight, I crouched by the deck steps the dog uses to do his business and get into mischief. Ethan stood almost all the way to the lacecap on the other end.

I had to reel him in by the tether, a vinyl-coated wire cable, which luckily gave way as it slid back across and around the ends of the unused boards.

Once he reached the exit, Ethan had to dip his torso down into that divot he had dug in order to squeeze out with an inch or two to spare. He’s a skinny dog, but this was still fairly impressive.

I’ve known various critters to live beneath our deck and around the yard, including chipmunks and rabbits. I’ve seen a gray vole in the front yard beds, plus a tunnel of soil something had dug in an irregular, meandering curved line through the brown.

We’ve enjoyed natural lawn aeration that we deduced either skunks or raccoons had accomplished, digging for grubs in that same area beside the bed nearest the steps.

In the open field near the neighborhood playground and jungle gym, we’ve encountered deer droppings and scattered feathers from birds striking the power lines above.

And once, while walking my former dog Elyse toward that same clearing that stretches across the street, as we approached the area, a car slowed beside us and two ladies told me there was a coyote up ahead, to be careful with the dog. That sent us in the opposite direction back home.

With these experiences, near-misses, and all the forensic evidence, we’re well aware that it’s best if the dog does not go under the deck for any reason. Plenty of claws, teeth, parasites, and diseases make suburbia a wild kingdom.

Then, of course, the nails on those deck boards pose injury risk, along with the uneven ground causing the boards to lie unevenly. It must become strictly off limits.

I figured it was certainly possible, if not probable, that Ethan had grabbed hold of some tender morsel of scat or remains or babies that maybe he shouldn’t have.

It was too dark, at mid-day, as I peered underneath, to see anything definitive without risking myself by going in or by walking around to the lacecap. There my access to the dog would be less but my view closer and clearer.

I did not want to waste time investigating. The dog had to come out now.

So then out he came, panting and pleased with himself for escaping the day’s heat, and I promptly shoved a large plant pot, filled with old, heavy soil from both winter and spring, into the corner to limit his access should he happen to try again, even while I watched. One never knows.

Then, I used a towel to scrape off the damp dirt caked to the underside of Ethan’s toenails. This took a little time; his nails had already needed trimming.

The next day, yesterday, I supervised more closely.

We clearly have training to do to keep Ethan out of the flower beds in the first place, out from under the deck, and away from chewing on my hydrangea branches, among other no-no’s.

Luckily, although he is a tough chewer and is becoming a digger, he rarely eats anything he enjoys chewing on that’s not designated edible for dogs. This sidesteps major hassles, dangers, and vet bills.

This time outside with Ethan, I was eating cereal topped with fresh-cut strawberries, a late breakfast by most standards at 11 a.m. At first seated in a deck chair, I decided to move after I noticed three yellow jackets starting to congregate in my vicinity.

What happened next led to a remarkable discovery. . . .

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Come back for Part 2 when all will be revealed, plus a little more.

Backyard Brief: Influence

Influence

a poem by Carrie Tangenberg

for C & M

Tumbleweed 
    hydrangea blooms 
         toss at strips of 
                 sheets of snow 
          on the terrace 
     tan under 
         crisp white crust 
Some escape
    twirl    ceaseless    swirl 
 off spring 
      from the 
         parent bush

Blended brown  
       latte foam 
         that’s cooled 
      too long        stiffened
 to firmer       spray        bound
    as paper petals or 
          bubbles stick 
       as one 
against the 
       gusting brisk

Wintered over
         snapped off
     stems at       shrub       edges
  Then sheared
near the base 
      gain new names 
         in the hands of 
  neighbor children
         like “power beam”
          and “shield of power”

They invent the
    rules of their game
          as they play it
    but never figure
            club or mace or 
       sword, even when I 
 suggest it
    They need not 
            make blunt their 
    force,     strike or     trauma, 
                      come out 
         from fragile 
 magic sprig