Sunday, January 29, 2012

An Intimate Visit with Hiwassee's Sandhill Cranes

What a WOW experience this was.
I received a special invitation from a landowner in the Birchwood area, to meet in the pre-dawn hours and set up observation in a blind with the hope of seeing and photographing sandhill cranes.  Even though I live more than two hours away, and arrival by 6:45 a.m. meant getting up in the middle of the night, this is not the kind of opportunity I will pass up!  I felt privileged and full of anticipation before I even glimpsed a sandhill crane.
You never know what will happen in these circumstances, whether the birds will show up, whether equipment will work, or what the weather might bring, but every detail of this experience worked out beautifully, including the arrival of more than fifty sandhill cranes shortly after daylight.

Above you see sandhill cranes walking up the incline from the field below where they initially landed.  Unless they are migrating, sandhill cranes spend more time walking than flying, ever alert for danger as they search for foraging opportunities.  The cranes have just flown in from their roost at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge.  In this field they are attracted to an area where silage has been stored and have been feeding on it for several weeks.  The sandhill cranes have created the mud you see in the images below by probing the ground with their long beaks.  
A male sounding a guard call above (click the link to hear it).  This is a very loud call that was sounded by a number of cranes in the flock as groups of sandhills were flying over and more sandhills joined this feeding area.  Though we often couldn't see new arrivals until they were about to land, the whooshing and pounding of wing beats and the head movements of cranes within view kept us informed of new arrivals.
The sun burns away the dense fog and we have clear skies.  Breath-taking.
Above you see an adult sandhill crane that has been probing in the mud and calling intermittently.  Just behind the adult, you see a juvenile with the red-facial skin developed but with telling cinnamon feathers remaining on the back of the head and neck.
Above and below, the sandhill cranes forage in the mud for silage, grain, insects and worms.  While contentedly feeding, soft humming sounds could be heard occasionally, similar to that made by chickens as they scratch.  This was a delightful new discovery.
Next:  Order in the feeding territory!

Links and resources:

To see all the posts in this three-part series visit: Wintering Sandhill Cranes

At my companion blog, Vickie's Sketchbook:  Sandhill Cranes and Art
Sandhill crane art in my website galleries

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Wintering Bluebirds--the Magic and the Mystery

As I've watched bluebirds visit my mealworm feeder over the past several weeks, I've realized that this opportunity to observe and recognize members of the family that nested in my nest box this past season, is fleeting, and will never happen in quite the same way again.
The mated pair of my nest box bluebird family was not familiar with a mealworm feeder prior to their exposure this past spring.  They did not approach it or show curiosity at the onset, even though the feeder is very close to the nestbox.  Neither, did they have any experience with a human offering mealworms (nor did I).  It was while watching their behavior as they exited the nest box that I noticed that they sometimes paused on the guard and looked down for insects.  This gave me the idea to place the blue dish of meal worms in their direct line of vision as they rested on the nest guard after feeding young.
It was the female who first discovered the mealworms and landed on the dish with excited chirps, and who readily began to associate the blue dish with mealworms where ever it was placed.  This eventually led her to understand and associate the blue dish in the feeder with mealworms.  The male followed her example.  Very quickly, using fine honed flight skills, the male and female flew into the mealworm feeder's guard with precision, flattening their feathers and barely touching the wire guard that serves to keep out larger birds.
Female adult feeding inside the feeder with young bluebird perched on top.

The first brood juveniles were less precise in their landings and entrance, but also became very adapt at entering the feeder and collecting mealworms both for themselves and to feed to the second brood nestlings.  They also were not bothered by my presence, having seen me many times while in the company of their parents.  I could still distinguish them from their parents by behavior.  The male and female adults both often faced me when they landed, sometimes flying to a closer perch when I was present, and stared at me and wing-waved to solicit more mealworms.  Their bond to me as a potential source of food has remained strong due to their exposure throughout their feeding of two nest broods during the summer.  This behavior sets them apart even now.
The younger bird pictured in the top and third images, finds her way into the feeder, above, and stands alert behind the older female, possibly watching for her reaction or waiting her turn.  Below, a second young bird does not attempt to enter the feeder, but teeters on the outer edge to grab home-made suet that has fallen onto the platform.
Having observed these feeding behaviors and able to distinguish the mated pair from the season's offspring even after the first brood youngsters began to molt and lose their juvenile spots,  I have assumed that the bluebirds now visiting the mealworm feeder are the nest box pair and their offspring.  Since the family left the immediate area after the second brood fledged, I have naturally assumed that the birds having difficulty entering the feeder through the guard are the second brood juveniles that had no opportunity to practice.  
Having said that, last night I opened my new and wonderful resource for bluebird information, Studying Eastern Bluebirds, A Biologist's Report and Reflections, by David Pitts, and began to partially unravel some of my assumptions, or at least cast doubt on them.  As always, with animal and bird observations, we try to make sense of what we are seeing based on what we know about a species or about individuals, but there are many variables and possibilities to consider.  
Some of the interesting information that I read about flocking in Pitt's chapter on wintering bluebirds gave me pause, raising questions but not necessarily answering them.  This is not a bad thing, of course.  Unanswered questions cause us to observe more closely and open our minds to many possibilities.
To summarize, Pitt's winter observations of bluebirds he had banded led him to suggest that each wintering bluebird flock usually contained one adult male, one adult female, and two to six young bluebirds that had hatched the previous summer.  The adults were often, but not always, the mated pair in the territory that included their nest box.  The juvenile bluebirds in a winter flock, on the other hand, were usually not the offspring of the adults in that flock.  However, fledglings from a late nest did sometimes remain with their parents into the winter.  (aha!)

That last statement made me chuckle.  Question answered, question unanswered.  Am I seeing the inexperienced second brood juveniles returning to the feeder with their parents?  Or am I seeing young birds from other local families or migrants that have joined this pair's flock for winter survival?  It is certain I will never know the answer, but it is also certain that I am seeing young birds, numbering four to six, accompanying the familiar adult pair to the feeder, and that all of them are better equipped to survive the winter in the company of each other.

In the last three images, above, you are seeing the same young bluebird attempting to enter the feeder. She ultimately did not go inside, choosing to grab morsels of food from the outer rim, instead.  

More observations on wintering bluebirds and flocking behavior in upcoming posts.  

Links and Resources:

Studying Eastern Bluebirds, A Biologist's Report and Reflections by T. David Pitts

Feeding mealworms to bluebirds
My blog posts on my bluebird family
Bluebird art found on my website watercolor gallery and in my online shop.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival and It's Cranes

A spectacular watchable wildlife event!   
Above you see thousands of sandhill cranes lifting off at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge as something unidentified stirs them all at once.  The rare Asian hooded crane, which was in clear view several times during the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival on Saturday, is among the flying birds.  

The Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge is one of the largest sandhill crane staging areas in the east, second only to Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana.  Sandhill cranes stop-over at the Hiwassee Wildlife refuge near Dayton, TN to feed and rest as they migrate south to Georgia and Florida for the winter.  As many as 10,000 may remain, over-wintering in Tennessee.
Watching and listening as thousands of cranes take flight is an awe-inspiring experience.  I never fail to wonder how they keep from colliding.  With a wing span of 6-7 ft and so many in flight at once, it is certain they must bump each other. But clearly this doesn't interfere with their spectacular unison flight that at first travels in one direction, then divides into spiraling layers as they catch thermals and glide in search of another safe resting place (shown below).
More than 2200 people enjoyed the sandhill crane viewing at the festival on Saturday and close to that number were present on Sunday.

The festival was sponsored by the Tennessee Ornithological Society (TOS), Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) and the Barbara J Mapp Foundation.  Two of these sponsors are represented in the image below.
From left to right:  John Noel (TOS), Melinda Welton (TOS), festival co-chair; Ed Carter, TWRA Executive Director (with raised glasses viewing the hooded crane), and Kirk Miles, TWRA Region III, Wildlife Program Manager.  Cyndi Routledge (TOS) also co-chaired the festival activities, along with Dan Hicks (TWRA).  Events were coordinated among three sites, the Birchwood School, the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge observation area, and the Cherokee Removal Memorial, where educational displays, interpreters, presentations and refreshments were available for festival participants.
According to the 2006 USF&WS Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife Related Recreation, more than 87 million Americans or 38% of the U.S. population, age 16 or older, hunt, fish or observe wildlife, spending $120 billion.  This amount is "roughly equal to America's total spending at all spectator sports, casinos, motion pictures, golf courses, country clubs, amusement parks, and arcades combined,"  the survey reported. Within those wildlife related activities, 71 million or 31% of Americans observed wildlife and spent $45 billion.
Add to these economic benefits, known research that links positive health to nature-related activities including improved mental health, anti-aging benefits and enhanced child development, and we have a golden treasure in our migrating sandhill crane population that is truly hard to measure.

For me personally, having attended this festival since 1999, I enjoyed reuniting with many old friends and the opportunity to share crane stories with many new ones.  A special thank you to everyone that said "hello" and introduced themselves. It was a special treat to meet people who know me through my blog posts and to hear their comments!

Links and Resources:

Top Crane Posts on this blog:  Hooded Crane at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in TN
Crane Magic--Three Crane Species at Hiwassee.  Other posts on:  the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival, Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge and sandhill cranes.

At my companion blog, Vickie's Sketchbook:  Sandhill Cranes and Art
Sandhill crane art in my website galleries

Friday, January 13, 2012

Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge and the Hooded Crane

While I'm typing this, the wind is howling outside my window and blowing snow, as though the winter has suddenly remembered Tennessee and is arriving in blustering style.  Despite the discomfort these fronts bring, they often create the best crane viewing conditions, bringing cranes and many other wintering birds down into Tennessee to escape the harsh weather in more northern states.
Photo credit:  David Roemer

To wet your appetite and prepare you for what you will see at the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival this weekend, January 14th and 15th, I am re-publishing last night's TN-bird post from Charles Murray.  Charles is a member of the Tennessee Ornithological Society and a resident of Birchwood, TN, and has been at the refuge daily welcoming visitors and keeping all of us posted on the most recent bird sightings there.  His latest post, Jan 12th, was especially fun to read!

Lots of things were happening at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Meigs Co. at Birchwood today.  Two whooping cranes were seen from about 8-8:30 a.m. in a winter wheat field on top of the hill across the slough from the gazebo.  A Ross's goose and 2 blue phase snow geese were noted.  Several immature bald eagles were in view, including 2 immature bald eagles which did a talon-to-talon rollover display in mid-air.  Then several of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources commissioners arrived and stayed for about an hour during which time they saw thousands of sandhill cranes and several eagles.  The hooded crane was spotted about 1:20 p.m. in the same general area that the juvenile whoopers had been in earlier in the day.  It was in and out of view until about 3 p.m. when it was chased by a sandhill crane and flew out of sight to the west.  Hopefully, the hooded crane will still be in view Saturday and Sunday for the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival centered at Birchwood Elementary School.  I went to the Cherokee Removal Memorial very late, about 5:50 p.m., where I shared a sighting of at least 4 whooping cranes in a flooded area on Hiwassee Island with a visitor from Oklahoma.  61 visitors included a person from Minnesota for the first time.  Eleven states, Canada, and the district of Columbia were represented among the visitors [today].  People from 42 states and 10 nations have now contributed to at least 2614 visits to the HWR since December 14, 2011

Directions to the refuge can be found at Tennessee Watchable Wildlife--Hiwassee  

Visitors to the weekend crane festival will need to park at Birchwood Elementary School and ride the shuttle buses to HWR.  The buses will run at least every 15 minutes.  Only handicap parking will be allowed at the HWR.  Shuttles will also go to the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park.  DRESS WARMLY!  Predictions are for temperatures in the 20's in the mornings and 40's in the afternoons.  

Charles Murray
Birchwood, TN
Photo credit:  David Roemer.  

See you at the festival!

Links and Resources:

Jan 12th news report and video of Hiwassee's cranes.  Best part is the voice of the cranes.  Read my previous post to learn about the sandhill crane and whooping crane migrations to the refuge.

American Birding Association blog post on hooded crane.

Mike Nelson's Flicker site with Hooded crane video and photo stream

At my companion blog, Vickie's Sketchbook:  Sandhill Cranes and Art
Sandhill crane art in my website galleries

On this blog:  Whooping Crane Family Series and Whooping Crane Ultralight Migration

Sunday, January 8, 2012

TN Sandhill Crane Festival Celebrates Three Crane Species

Make plans to join us at the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival, January 14th and 15th at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge and celebrate three crane species!  
Photo credit: Mike Nelson (see links below).  A Greater Sandhill Crane flying over the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge.

The Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge has had a rare visitor that has stirred excitement in the bird-watching world.  A Hooded crane, native to Asia, has found its way to the refuge, located near Dayton and Birchwood, TN, along with thousands of sandhill cranes and the endangered Whooping cranes that visit the refuge in the winter months to rest and feed.
Photo credit:  Mike Nelson.   Hooded crane (dark gray with white neck) with sandhill cranes at Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Tennessee. 

As of January 7th, more than 2388 visitors, representing nine countries and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and 40 states and the District of Columbia, have visited the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge since the Hooded crane was first reported on December 13th.   
As many as eight endangered Whooping cranes (above) have been present on the refuge at one time during this migration and wintering season, and usually one or more is visible from the viewing platform.  The presence of wintering Whooping cranes is attributable to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership's (WCEP's) two re-introduction programs:  Operation Migration's ultralight-led migration, and the Direct Autumn Release program.  

Whooping crane juveniles must learn their migration route from their parents. Beginning in 2001, Operation Migration, a founding WCEP partner, has led groups of juvenile whooping cranes each fall on their first southerly migration journey through Tennessee to wintering grounds in Florida. These cranes then find their way back to their fledging grounds in Wisconsin in the spring, unassisted by humans, and migrate on their own the next fall. The beautiful cinnamon and white juvenile whooping cranes you see on the refuge have been captive-reared by the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin and released in the Direct Autumn Release program.  They have arrived at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge by following another more experienced Whooping crane or joining a flock of migrating sandhill cranes.  
Photo credit:  Mike Nelson.  Two juvenile Whooping cranes (cinnamon and white) and one mature whooping crane foraging and preening with sandhill cranes at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge.  

The Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge is a major staging area for migrating cranes in the east where they rest and feed along their migration journey.  Staging areas are important stop-over sights where cranes replenish nutrients, add weight, and come in contact with other cranes for potential pairing.  This is especially important for our eastern Whooping crane population which now numbers around 104 birds.  

The Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival presents a wonderful opportunity to learn about birds and see the rare occurrence of three species of cranes foraging together in a staging wetland.  There is no other place in North America where you can see three species of cranes together, and no other place in the world where three crane species will include the endangered Whooping crane.  Add to this, the treat of seeing thousands of eastern sandhill cranes that were once on the brink of extinction, and you have a rare opportunity for winter bird viewing that you won't want to miss.
Above, you see the cover of the Discover Birds Activity Book, illustrated and authored by yours truly, as a special activity for children who attend the festival. The twelve-page booklet is sponsored by the Tennessee Ornithological Society (TOS) and was coordinated and produced by TOS member and co-chair of the festival, Cyndi Routledge.  It contains fun information about wintering birds, images for children to color and a crossword puzzle to challenge young (and adult) minds.  You will find this book at the TOS exhibit table at the festival!

The festival is co-sponsored by TOS, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), and the Barbara J. Mapp Foundation, and is free to the public.  TWRA personnel will be available to answer questions about the refuge and the wildlife conservation work of the Agency. TOS members will be present at the viewing area to share their birding scopes and their knowledge of the birds you will find there, including bald eagles and many ducks and geese.
I am one of those TOS members and will also be available to answer questions on both days of the festival, so find me and say "hello".  I would love to meet you!

Links and Resources:

Mike Nelson's Flicker site with Hooded crane video and photo stream
Morgan Simmons Jan 10 article Knoxville News Sentinel:  Rare Crane Joins Hiwassee Flock
Make your plans to attend the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival
Directions to Birchwood and the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge
Sandhill Crane Festival Schedule of Events
Tennessee Ornithological Society
Tennessee Watchable Wildlife on Sandhill Cranes
Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency:  TN Sandhill Crane Festival
Hooded Crane is Season's Gift by Marcia Davis
Times Free Press--Rare Hooded Crane Seen
International Crane Foundation on the Hooded Crane

At my companion blog, Vickie's Sketchbook:  Sandhill Cranes and Art

Top Crane Posts on this blog:  Hooded Crane at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in TN
Crane Magic--Three Crane Species at Hiwassee

Whooping Crane Reintroduction links:
The 2011 ultralight migration class is currently grounded in Alabama due to an FAA technical investigation.  We hope this issue will resolve soon so the juvenile Whooping cranes can continue their southern migration.  Stay up to date on the migration progress by visiting Operation Migration's field journal.
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership--Direct Autumn Release Program
International Crane Foundation
On this blog:  Whooping Crane Family Series

Linked to Bird World Wednesday at The Pine River Review
Linked to Bird Photography Weekly at Bird

Friday, January 6, 2012

Rufous Hummingbird Wintering in Knoxville, Tennessee

Having a hummingbird in your yard is special any time of year, but having the rare experience of hosting a wintering hummingbird is over the top!  
This beautiful juvenile Rufous hummingbird is not hanging out in my yard, but located at the second best place.  He has made part of his wintering territory in the yard of friends, Billie Cantwell and Colin Leonard. On Thursday morning (Jan 5, 2012) I had the exciting pleasure of seeing my first Rufous hummingbird, a life bird, and my first wintering hummingbird in Tennessee.
Photo credit:  Billie Cantwell

Above, Mark Armstrong, Master Bander of hummingbirds and song birds, gets ready to band the hummingbird.  Below, Colin holds the captured bird briefly, warming it with his hand.  A captured hummer is placed in a mesh bag to hold it safely before banding.
Both Colin and Billie, members of the Knoxville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society (TOS), are active participants in bird banding at Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge with Mark.  Billie is also the current president of the Knoxville Chapter of TOS.

In the image below, Billie holds the bird briefly before he is released. The band will enable the bird to be identified if it returns in future years.  Mark, Avian Curator at the Knoxville Zoo, is also the past president of Knoxville's TOS. Mark has banded eleven Rufous hummingbirds this winter, all since November 15th of 2011.
Though most of us don't see hummingbirds in the winter, Bob Sargeant of the Hummingbird Study Group has been banding and studying wintering Rufous hummingbirds since the late 1980's.  While most Rufous hummingbirds are believed to winter in Mexico, Sargent believes that the gene pool is changing and that a hardy species of hummers with the genetic message to winter in the US southeast has developed, evident from the consistent numbers appearing in winter months.

According to those expert at banding hummingbirds, during the 2011-2012 wintering season more hummingbirds are being reported in the southeastern United States than in previous years.

Links and Resources:

On this blog:  Hummingbird Migration Surprises and Hummingbird banding

Wintering hummingbirds--Hummer Study Group
Rufous Hummingbird by Bob Sargent
Hummer Study Group
Knoxville Chapter, TN Ornithological Society
Tennessee Ornithological Society
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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