Sunday, January 31, 2010

Get A Grip On Your "G!"

I believe it's one of those laws of inverse proportion that the more dependent I am on my computer, the more likely it is to crash or at least, run slower and slower. I'm sure I have read that very thing on one of those Murphy's Law page-a-day calendars.  Probably, the day I read it, I snorted then ripped off the page to the next one because I didn't have to get anything done on the computer that very minute. If you think about it, to say that the computer "runs slower" is an insulting oxymoron. Mine isn't even crawling, let alone running! I am sure this is because I'm under the gun on a couple of deadlines. And I know that the computer is taking it out on me, personally. It's extracting revenge on me for not paying attention to it unless I need something. I can hear it thinking, plotting, "I'll show you! You just watch me freeze! You've really pushed my buttons this time and you're going to be really sorry!" I talk to my computer like a psychotic mumbles and rants to hallucinations. "Come on, can do it. Open up, just for me, pleeeeeeeease!" I beg and cajole to no avail; it shuns me and cramps up. Infuriating error messages appear, indecipherable computer gibberish all meaning in the end "No soup for you!" Then, I did the unthinkable. I have a terrible confession to make: I smashed the key board. Yes, indeedy, I did. I slammed my hand down and tore across the keys like a frenzied Amadeus Mozart ripping up the ivory. I swore like a whore and bashed until the 'g' flew completely off into space. The appearance of the sudden hole in the middle of the keyboard, between the 'f' and the 'h' stopped me cold. "Oh, God, what have I done?" I felt as sick as I would have if I had slapped one of my children. If one of my children pulled a stunt like my keyboard smashing, I would have given them a hefty time out and a lecture. But all I could say to myself was "Get a grip on your 'G,' girl!" I found the poor little thing under a side table, cowering. There was more pleading to God from me as I worked it back onto the post it had sprung from. I promised I'd never do that again. Think of all the things I couldn't write about again without a 'g'! Good God! Eagles, and geese, and goats and egrets and re-grets would all be left to gnashing, anguish and grief galore. I won't let the computer get my goat anymore.  
Snow Geese, Brunswick, Maine April 14, 2009
Snowy Egret, Phippsburg, Maine September, 2009

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Super Duper Cooper's HAWK!

I have been working on a photography project with a drop- dead deadline. Every morning, I'm at my computer between seven-thirty and eight. It's easy for me to sit there for three or four hours not moving more than my fingers on the keyboard. If I get up from the chair, it's to let the dogs out, then let them back in. I have to repeat that process, since they can't seem to make up their minds, especially if I'm trying to concentrate. They always know when I'm concentrating and like to bust it up.
     Being at my 'work' so unfailingly every day sounds like I'm really disciplined, but I'm not. I'm singular in my focus when my creative self has kicked in. I think this is a symptom of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), which I do have. When I get a thing in my head, I can't shut it off. This is great when I have a project to work on, but it can also be a big problem. My inability to 'give it up' has cost me jobs and cumulatively, weeks of sleep.
     Sometimes at night, the shards of a work of poetry start spinning around in my brain keeping me awake until four in the morning. I become fixated. One reason I'm convinced this is a symptom of ADHD is because it's all or nothing for me. My house is either a hog pen because I haven't cleaned in a month, or spotless because I've used Qtips to dig out every crack. When I'm working on a project, I'm apt to not quite get around to brushing my hair or teeth or getting dressed. And, so it was today.
     I made good headway on my project, but by noon, I was still in my bathrobe. Having appeased my dogs with the revolving door, I was hunched over the keyboard, deep in concentration. Suddenly, this hawk was sitting on the rail of the deck not ten feet from my face! I did have the camera, but the hawk was too fast and took off. I went outside to look for it, finding it close by in a tree. There were several branches between it and me that made it hard to get a good clean shot. I saw that I'd have to go into the yard to get the photographs that I wanted. But, there are almost two feet of snow on the ground right now and no path where I needed to go. So, there was nothing to do but put on my boots.
     I have serious, tall, 'for-when-the-snow-is-really-deep' boots. However, the snow is deeper than deep right now, slightly over my knees (I know I'm short, but still...). My "Lucky Bathrobe" was snuggley warm, but the snow that came over the tops of my boots and up into the robe, was not. Nonetheless, I slogged to where I could get better photos of my target. Once able to get a clear shot, I waited hoping that the bird would fly which it did.
     Its flight was expedited by a herd of fourteen Bluejays that took it upon themselves to drive the hawk away. When it flew, I started shooting nine frames a second as I panned my lens along with the bird, left to right. As the hawk swooped past me, I twisted and stepped right, a  tactical mistake. My boots bound in snow like cement and over I went. Bathrobe flapping, camera aloft, I made a magnificent snow angel. Flat on my back, snow up the robe, I burst into peels of laughter, seeing my hawk prize disappear out of the corner of my eye. The cold surprise did snap me from my project uni-focus; there was nothing to do after that but get dressed. I wonder why my physician has never recommended snow shock for the management of my ADHD.
This is a Cooper's Hawk, probably an immature female. Cooper's hawks are agile birds of prey that zoom through trees and bushes in pursuit of other birds. 

Bluejays often harass birds of prey much larger than themselves. They usually do it in groups. I guess they reason there's safety in numbers.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Politically Incorrect Duck or Long-tailed Duck

This is a pair of Long-tailed ducks. That's what we call them these days. They used to be called 'Oldsquaws,' until someone made a stink that the name was insensitive to the history of Native Americans. Some biologists were worried that some angry Native Americans would not support conservation efforts if offended by the duck's name, though the duck is not endangered, nor threatened. In 2000, the American Ornithologist's Union changed the name simply to keep step with the English language as is used in other parts of the world. Squaw isn't a word that makes sense anywhere but in the Americas. That 'Oldsquaw' was offensive to some wasn't sufficient reason for the AOU to change the name. People still know them as Oldsquaws and do call them by that name. They don't think a thing of it when they make that reference and are often confused if one says "Long-tailed duck." There are too many kinds of ducks with long tails, like Northern Pin-tails. I was recently hiking with an older woman who is a competent birder. Pointing out to sea from where we were walking I said, "Oh look! There are a couple of Long-tailed ducks!" She asked me which long tailed ducks. I couldn't believe she didn't see them right there in front of us and said, pointing, "Those, right there!"  "Oh, those ducks! What did you call them?" She asked. She thought I had misidentified them, so I had to explain that we were talking about the same ducks; that formerly, Long-tailed ducks were called Oldsquaws. Which, of course brought us full circle; one of us would have had to say the politically incorrect thing in talking about the ducks. In addition to being a competent birder, I also know her to be a socially and politically sensitive person. Nonetheless, she responded vigorously that the name change was ridiculous and confusing. "Who thought that up?" she asked.  I told her someone high up in birding circles thought Oldsquaw was politically incorrect and changed the name. Whereupon, I realized that the smart thing would simply have been to have changed the name from Oldsquaw to Politically Incorrect Duck. Everyone would remember that and it wouldn't be confused with some other duck with a long tail. And, it would  be the only duck that raises consciousness. I wonder if I can get on the naming committee........  
We have Politically Incorrect Ducks in our cove only during the winter. They breed and nest on the arctic tundra. They prefer sandy bottoms which is what we have here. Politically Incorrect Ducks can dive 200 feet down for crustaceans and invertebrates. They are also the sea duck which spends more time under water than on the surface. Two thirds of their time is spent diving for food.

"Oh, Larry! You look like such an idiot when you show off like that!" 

Thanks to Wikipedia, and David Allen Sibley - The Sibley Guide To Birds for the information.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Bald Eagle In A Desert Of Ice

Last night, the temperature outside dropped to zero with a brisk little breeze clipping around. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the stars twinkled. As much as I get worn down by days of clouds and gray skies, at least, when there are clouds, it's not so cold. Without clouds, we suffer from radiative cooling. You might think that this is because the clouds hold the heat of the earth in like a jacket, but that's not true. It feels warmer when there is cloud cover, because the clouds themselves give off heat, which 'radiates' back to the earth. We do feel their warmth, just like the heat given off from a wood stove warms us. Deep space gives off heat, too, but much less than the earth. We are a pretty cozy little planet, in spite of what it seems like in the dead of winter. On a cloudless night, if you look up into space, you can feel the heat leaving your face. If you hold a piece of paper between your face and the sky, you can feel the heat from the paper radiating back to you. The flimsy paper radiates more heat than the deep, dark cosmos.  I went driving around looking for birds and beasts to photograph yesterday, but everybody seemed to be in hiding. I could imagine them all tucked away into burrows and snug places, shoulders hunched to the cold. Perhaps they have little sleeping bags or at least blankets pulled tightly around them. To not see nary a bird nor beast on a whole afternoon's outing was quite discouraging and left me feeling even colder. I drove through the grounds of the local summer resort. Sebasco Harbor Resort boasts a golf course, spa, pleasure boat moorings and a swimming pool. The place is closed. All that remains is a desert of ice. The pipes have all been drained of water, heat off, pool empty. There's nothing more discouraging than an empty swimming pool. An empty pool always looks like defeat. But, overseeing all of the frozen assets was this gorgeous Bald eagle. Though it didn't look warm and fuzzy, it did give me a bit of feathered comfort.

Popham beach, Pond Island Lighthouse

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Friday, January 8, 2010

Golden-eyes, "I've Got Eyes For You, Babe!"

 Sometimes, the names of birds baffle me; the name may have no relationship to what I see about the bird. Sometimes this is because, as in the case of the Red-throated loons I've posted about in the past or the Red-shouldered hawk, it's because the bird isn't displayed in breeding plumage or it's just too young to have developed it. Either way, that makes it often hard for me to remember what a bird is when I see it. I have to look them up more frequently than I would like. I have six field guides within reach at all times and I use several online sources. The guide I use the most often, my daily bible, is The Sibley Guide To The Birds, by David Allen Sibley. Even with all of that at hand, it's hard to tell some things apart. In the photo below of the merganser with the Golden-eye, I can tell that it's a Red-breasted Merganser, but I can't say for sure if it's a breeding female or a non-breeding male. I'm going with breeding female because of the time of year. Sometimes with birding, you just have to go with your gut and make a commitment. Even though it seems early for them to be frolicking around all lovey-dovey, they are. The male merganser in the bottom photo is stretching his wings and making himself look important to the chicks and to the other males. The Common Golden-eye males below are not giving that poor hen a moments peace and she is clearly outnumbered. They are so aggressive about hens that this one is even looking over this female merganser pretty seriously! I think it's obvious with the males and the females why they are called 'Golden-eyes.' I never have a problem remembering that. There are two kinds of Golden-eyes, Common and Barrows. The reference to 'Common' is another point that is confusing to me. Why common? There's often nothing common about birds named as common. The Common Merganser has an all white breast and is a flashy, showy bird. So why not call it 'White-breasted' instead of 'Common?' And Common Golden-eye? You have to really be bitten by the birding bug, which I have been, to make the distinctions between a Common and a Barrows. I won't bore you with those details until the day I photograph a Barrows. And then, look out! Golden-eyes of either persuasion are small, diving ducks. I don't see them in our cove very often in the summer, but there are lots of them in small groups like this during the winter. They are one of the last ducks to migrate south in the fall and will spend time in open water as far north as they can find it. This makes them birds that a real 'Main-ah' can appreciate. Another 'Main-ah' appreciation factor is that they eat mollusks and crustaceans while here for the winter (insects are preferred fare while breeding), as do the other diving ducks I've posted about. Unlike those birds, they nest in tree cavities, either where branches have broken off or where large woodpeckers have drilled holes. Other birds will lay eggs in with Golden-eye broods ("brood parasitism"). So, a hen may hatch Golden-eye chicks that are not her own. They have been known to hatch chicks of European Starlings and even Tree Swallows! If a Common Golden-eye and a Red-breasted merganser mated (they don't), and they raised a Tree Swallow, what would it be called? Perhaps an "Uncommon Red-eyed Mergswall?" Now, that  I could remember! Golden-eyes are heavily hunted and their breeding and wintering grounds are being degraded by development, but they are not endangered. 

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

White-winged Scoters, The Crab Wars

These are White-winged Scoters and an American Herring Gull eating crabs. There are three kinds of Scoter, Black, Surf and the ones shown here. All of them visit the Maine coast in the winter, but breed further inland. White-winged scoters are easy to pick out by the white comma on their eyes. I wonder how their spelling is. At about twenty-four inches long, White-winged scoters are the largest of the scoters which are all a type of diving duck. They dive to the bottom, propelled by their bright pink feet where they take mostly mollusks. As you can see, they like crabs too. They will also eat small fish, aquatic insects and some aquatic plants. Totman Cove, here in Phippsburg, is a feeding ground for lots of sea birds. The bottom is sand rather than mud, but the shore is all  rock with lots of seaweed. This provides two types of food. The White-winged scoters prefer sandy bottoms. I don't. I like to be able to rinse out my bathing suit if it fills with sand, but they like it. As my mother liked to say, "There's no accounting for taste." Lately, there has been lots of sea bird action here, so I have done some 'pier time.' That's when I actually get out of my bathrobe, put on a jacket and sit on the end of the 118 foot pier until my hands are too numb to press the shutter or my memory card is full. Sometimes my battery runs out which happens faster than usual because of the cold. Yesterday, it was all three plus it just got too dark. That's winter wildlife photography for you! In addition to the scoters, there were Atlantic Eiders, Red-breasted Mergansers, American Black Ducks, Common Loons and Common Golden-eyes. I have yet to see a Barrow's Golden-eye in here or a Pacific Loon, both of which would be real birding catches. I do watch for them every day, though. The Herring Gulls do not dive, but hang around the diving ducks to steal their catches. They rely on those guys to do the diving, then bomb them from above and steal their catch when they drop it. The crabs start to sink really fast so the gulls are equally fast at snagging them before they sink out of reach. Even though it's only January, there is courtship behavior happening between male and female birds. All this diving, fighting, splashing and stealing gets the attentions of the Bald eagles. Two of them appeared making it additionally difficult to photograph the birds. When the eagles show up, many of the birds take flight and the rest bunch together and move away from the shore line as fast as they can. Oh, the drama!

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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Birds In Winter

I took this photograph a few days ago, before it snowed. These bird photographs were all taken yesterday, in the blizzard. I made sure there was lots of bird food, nuts, suet and berries. I have a heated bird bath, too. Surprisingly, it uses very little electricity - about the equivalent of a four watt bulb. Birds struggle to get enough liquid water in the winter. I have seen birds eat snow when there wasn't water. When I see all the ice and snow, I wonder about the creatures that live out in it. I do what I can to help them. I had the luxury of taking these photographs from inside my house, secure in my bathrobe. It was the least I could do. No, really, I mean it. It was the very least.

                                American Goldfinches  in winter plumage, males                                                           

Male and Female Northern Cardinals

Blue Jay and Mourning Dove

American Tree Sparrow

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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Red-shouldered Hawk

"Red Rover, Red Rover,"
"Send Robin On Over!"

     I hated that game. Played on hot summer nights with neighborhood kids, I always felt like I was on the wrong side. Helpless, tossed, given up; I felt like a loser. I don't remember what the rules were, something about being called out of a group to physically break through a line of opposing kids. I distinctly recall the red-faced panicky feeling. I could never break through the line which was why I was always called. My head swam and my heart raced as I was flung from one side to the other, kids shouting, me nearly falling down when whipped across the line. I was not an athletic child. I was scrawny with tangled hair and huge, chipped beaverish front teeth. I didn't get breasts or my first period until I was  nearly forty. I was a geek before there were geeks!
     I liked science and could name the organisms floating in pond water under the microscope, a gift from my father. Knowing things was how I got a charge and often times, was how I was used by other kids. I was rarely invited to birthday parties or sleep overs but regularly asked to give the answers to tests or homework assignments. Knowing the answers to things was the one thing I could do that gave me an edge. But these days, when I see something like this hawk, I feel like a winner. Seeing it was exhilarating! I was driving home from the post office when out of the corner of my eye, I saw this beast on the utility line. I conducted a U turn on Route 209, camera on the passenger's seat, at the ready, and wound down the window. I knew right away that this was not a hawk I was familiar with.
    At first, when I looked at the photos, I couldn't believe that what it looked like could possibly be true. My palms started to sweat. I recognized right away what it was, but then did not trust my gut. I'm not the most experienced birder, plus I lack confidence in what I do know. I second guess myself. When it comes to hawks especially, I've fallen and I can't get up! In the world of birding it's important to pay attention to details and not jump the gun on identification; credibility is at stake. After all, when making bird identifications there's rarely DNA available. It's what the birder sees that counts. In my case, I'm a photographer as well, which gives me an edge, but not proof positive. When and where the photo was taken is as important as the subject itself.
    I poured through The Sibley Guide To Birds, The Audubon Society Field Guide To North American Birds, Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide To Birds East Of The Rockies, then consulted the web sites Whatbird and Allaboutbirds. My head was spinning! "Red Rover, Red Rover........." I could hear them screaming and feel myself falling as I churned the pages. Still not confident, I sent the photos to CHIT, my top secret, crack, hawk identification team. When I e mailed the photos, I held my breath and committed that  I thought it was a juvenile, Red-shouldered hawk, highly unusual in Maine in winter. I gulped, pulling the neck of my shirt away from my throat. "Oh God, I'm going to look like a total idiot," I feared. I thought I was going to pass out! Give me a mean spirited kids game over birding any day! At least kids grow out of it.

Red-shouldered hawk with suicidal Chickadee      Juvenile, Red-shouldered hawk - I broke through the line!

All photographs used in this blog are the work of Robin R Robinson.

Friday, January 1, 2010

American robin


After one of our recent rain events, where everyone north of us got snow, there was beautiful frost on everything. I took these photographs wearing my bathrobe. I had to act fast to capture this beauty before the sun hit it and melted away the delicate frosting.This ephemeral effect only happens when there has been water then suddenly freezing temperatures. It disappears as soon as the rays of the morning sun strike. Now, it's buried under snow and gone.  

All the photographs in this blog have been captured by Robin Robinson.