Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sandhill Cranes on the Move

Kentucky's first Sandhill Crane hunting season ended on January 15th with 50 birds being taken.  Kentucky is the first state in the eastern United States to allow hunting of Sandhill Cranes since their near decimation in in the 19th and 20th centuries.  A limit of 400 was set at the beginning of the season and the majority of birds were taken in Hardin and Barren counties.  A ban was put on Sandhill Crane hunting in 1916 because the population was getting so low.  Today they have mostly recovered and are increasing in numbers, though many still have concerns over their being hunted.

Sandhill Cranes

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife said the Sandhill Crane hunt was necessitated because the birds were becoming a nuisance feeding on farmer's crops.  Many citizens objected to the need to hunt Sandhill Cranes and formed the KY Coalition for Sandhill Cranes.  The Coalition lobbied KYDFW to forgo the hunting season but we unsuccessful and the season went forward.  Now that it is over, KYDFW will review the season and decide whether to do it again in 2012. 

Sandhill Cranes

With season is over, Sandhills are beginning to congregate in fields again in Cecilia in Hardin county.  Last year several thousand birds roosted in fields in Cecilia as they migrated through our state.  These birds were photographed yesterday as they were flying over Louisville.  Hopefully they will stick around a while and let everyone get up close views of these amazing prehistoric birds before they migrate north.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

I have had the pleasure of observing two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in the Maple Tree in my backyard! At first, I thought I was seeing just one, but upon viewing my pictures, I realized that one of them was a female (notice the white on the throat instead of red).

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (female)
Female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

I first noticed the male sitting on the side of the tree, seemingly in the same spot for a very long time. Later, I realized that he had been drilling several small holes in the bark. I have discovered that those small holes are called sap wells, which the Sapsucker drills into the bark, then returns later to eat insects that have become trapped in the resulting sap!

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (notice the sap wells that he has drilled in the bark)

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are a bird we will only get to see during the winter in Kentucky. They breed in the northern part of the United States and Canada, with a southern population in the Appalachians into northwest Georgia. So be sure and check your sap producing trees in the winter, you may just be surprised!
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (male)
Male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Interesting tidbit: A group of Sapsuckers are called a "Slurp" of Sapsuckers!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Louisville Birds in January

The unseasonable weather has the local birds out and about and I was lucky enough to get these shots.  Looks like the rest of the week will be feeling more like April than January so be on the lookout for birds in your area.

Northern Mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird

Swamp Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow

Monday, January 23, 2012

Birding 101: Introduction to Birding

Have you ever seen somebody with binoculars standing motionless, staring a tree, making weird noises with their mouth, and then suddenly erupting into jubilee for no apparent reason?  Chances are you have just seen a birder pishing out and ticking off a life-bird.  Wait, what does all that mean?  Pishing?  Ticking?  Life bird?  You may think this all sounds strange, but soon you too will be feeling the itch to twitch - as our British friends call birding.  Starting out birding can be a daunting task.  There are hundreds of birds in North America, all of them present at different times of the year, and some very similar in appearance and sound.  Not many birds make themselves readily visible and one may get just a fleeting glance before the bird disappears.  How is one ever supposed to get started birding when there is such a steep learning curve involved?  Never fear, birding 101 is here.  I will walk you through what you will need to start birding, what birds you are most likely to see, and some tips and tricks along the way.  Let's get started.

Introduction to Birdwatching

Birdwatching as a hobby began in America and Great Britain around the end of the 19th century and increased in popularity in the 1930's with the advent of binoculars and field guides.  Today it is exploding in popularity, surpassing hunting, fishing, and even golf as America's favorite pastime.  There are all types of birders; from backyard birders that watch their bird feeders to fanatics willing to go the the ends of the Earth to see a rare bird.  Even with the rapid growth in popularity, there are still many of Americans just like you, interested in taking the first steps to becoming birdwatchers. 


There are many must-haves if you are considering taking up birding.  The first is a good pair of binoculars.  Binoculars allow you to see distant birds up close and help with identifying difficult birds.  The best binoculars to use for birding are 7x35 or 8x42 binoculars.  The first number relates to the magnification of the binoculars and the second number is the objective diameter, or the amount of light the binoculars let in.  These two sizes give you a good magnification and depth of field for spotting and following quick small birds.  A great place to buy binoculars is Eagle Optics, though I highly recommend finding a local store to try out several types and see which suit you best.

Binoculars by iandavid

Another important tool you should have every time you go birding is a field guide.  Field guides come in many forms, though most use paintings (some use pictures) that depict the various types of birds you are likely to encounter.  Field guides show field marks, ranges, and other notes that make identification of birds easier.  Your best bet is to buy a field guide for your geographical region, for example Sibley's Field Guide to Eastern Birds if you live in Kentucky.  There are many field guides to choose from, like: Peterson's, National Geographic, and Stokes.

Lastly, it is wise to consult a checklist for birds that may be present in your area.  Having a checklist may help you narrow down difficult birds in your area.  Not all of the birds in your field guide will be present in your area, so it is smart to have a check list to weed out the birds that are not.  A great resource in Kentucky is the Kentucky Ornithological Society checklist and the BirdKY list serv, where local birders post their findings online.  Follow the BirdKY list serv to see what birds are being seen when and this too will help you know which birds are present in your area and at what time of year.  Also, join a local organization where more experienced birders would be happy to help you learn.  In Louisville, check out the Louisville Audubon Society or the Beckham Bird Club for field trips and informative talks.

Where to Find Birds

Perhaps the hardest part in starting your bird watching endeavor is finding the birds themselves.  The best way to start honing your bird identification skills is to set up a bird feeder in your back yard and identifying the birds that come in for the free buffet.  This brings the birds to you, giving you long uninterrupted views and more time to identify the birds.  In order to bring in the most birds it is best to use a variety of feeders.  The best and simplest method is using a tube feeder to attract the widest variety of birds.  Fill your feeder with black oil sunflower seed or one of Louisville Audubon Society's seed mixes to bring in cardinals, chickadees, and titmice.  Next hang a thistle feeder to bring in the finches.  And don't forget a suet feeder for the woodpeckers and nuthatches. It may take a couple days for the birds to find your feeders so be patient.  Check out the second Birding 101 post focused on feeding your backyard birds.

Carolina Chickadee
Carolina Chickadee by Karen Bonsell

So you've been scouting your feeders and you're feeling pretty confident about your bird identification skills, now it's time to see what you're really made of and hit the woods and fields.  The first place to go is a local park.  Choose a park that has trails that go through woods and fields so you can find a variety of birds.  Start early in the morning because the birds are more active at the beginning of the day.  Walk slowly and quietly and be on the lookout for movement and listen for bird chirps and songs.  Seek out edges where one habitat blends into another.  Birds are attracted to edges because of the variety of foods available and you should make a point to check them out for this reason.

park trail
Park Trail by dolanh

Bird Identification

With binoculars in one hand and your trusty field guide in the other, you set out on a trail in search of birds.  You hear some chirps coming from the bushes and you search for the bird making the noise.  A small bird pops up from the underbrush and perches high up on a branch in clear view!  You put your binoculars on the bird and focus, and then comes the hard part.  Just what bird is it?  Making a positive identification can be difficult when you are first beginning, but here are some tips to help you decide which bird you are looking at.

First things first, keep your eye on the bird for as long as it stays in view.  Do not attempt to consult your field guide until the bird has left your view.  All the while you are looking at it, make mental notes, sketch a mental image of the bird and then when it has left, search your field guide for a match.  Here are some things to pay attention to when trying to identify a bird:
  1. Size - Is is the size of a sparrow, robin, crow, or hawk?  Size will help you separate different groups of birds and will narrow down your search.
  2. Bill shape - What type of bill does the bird have?  Is it large and strong like a cardinal?  Or slender like a warbler?  Woodpeckers have long, straight bills for hammering into trees, whereas hawks have curved, toothed bills for tearing meat.  A bird's beak says a lot about what it eats and is a great characteristic to use when identifying birds.
  3. Color - Color isn't as much help in identifying birds as you might first think, but it definitely will help you narrow down your search.  Many birds of all types have yellow on their body somewhere, but a bird with blue plumage will be easier to identify because only a few species of birds are this color.  Pay attention to the color on a bird's belly, back, and head to separate similarly colored birds.
  4. Behavior - Some birds exhibit unique behaviors such as tail-bobbing or walking instead of hopping.  Make note whether the bird is traveling in a flock or is solitary.  How is the bird flying?  Does it glide or does flap vigorously?  How was it foraging for food?  Was it scratching through leaves on the ground or was it searching for berries on a bush?
  5. Field Marks - Field marks are unique identifiers for a species or group of birds.  For instance, most woodpeckers have a red patch on the back of the head.  Some birds like the Cedar Waxwing and Eastern Kingbird have terminal tail bands that set them apart from all other birds.  Also look for eye-rings, wing bars, and eye stripes.  Your field guide will help guide you through the different species and their unique identifying characteristics.
Hairy Woodpecker / Pic chevelu
 Hairy Woodpecker by Eric Begin


While some birds may frequent several different types of habitat, especially during migration, most birds will be found in only one type of habitat.  There are many types of habitats but only a few are present in the Louisville area.  Louisville predominately is made up of either woodlands or old fields, with some wetlands too.  Depending on which habitat you are in, you can narrow the types of birds that will be seen in that specific habitat.  For instance, you will only ever find a meadowlark in a field and you will only see a woodpecker in a forest.  This is because birds have adapted to the type of habitat they forage for food and breed in.

Many parks in the Louisville area have woodland trails great for birding.  For starters, try Jefferson Memorial Forest, Cherokee Park, or Joe Creason.  There are many woodland birds you will encounter that you would normally see at your feeder, such as: Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Blue Jay, and Northern Cardinal.  However, in spring, summer, and fall you will find vireos, warblers, tanagers, and orioles, all colorful birds that make a living in the forest.  Many forest birds inhabit the upper reaches of the canopy while a few forage near the ground.  Keep your eyes open and ears alert to the sounds of birds in the forest to find your quarry.

Perhaps the best place to start birding is in the old fields and grasslands in your area.  In Louisville there are plenty of good parks with this type of habitat, for instance, try: Anchorage Trail, Garvin Brown, or Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve.  Field-type habitats are a good place to start because they are open and it is easier to locate and observe birds.  There are many birds you will run into in the fields and grasslands.  Many species of sparrows inhabit fields, as do meadowlarks, hawks, and quail.  Your best bet to find birds in this type of habitat is to search for food resources such as berries or seeds.  Look for wet areas and puddles as well because birds often visit wet spots to forage and drink.

Finally, be sure to visit some of the parks that feature wetlands to see birds you won't see anywhere else.  In Louisville, some of the best parks with wetlands are: Caperton Swamp, Draut Park, and Reformatory Lake.  Wetlands are some of the most important habitats around and are home to very interesting birds.  There you will find ducks of all types, shorebirds like herons and egrets, blackbirds, and one of my favorites, the Belted Kingfisher.  It is beneficial to bring a scope when observing ducks and shorebirds but not completely necessary.  The parks above offer great up close looks at a variety of wetland birds.

My Wood duck friend
Wood Duck by Doug Greenberg


To sum up, know that when you start birding you are not alone.  There are millions just like you and it is a great way to meet new and interesting people. It is an easy and inexpensive hobby to start and once you do it you will be hooked!  So what are you waiting for?  Start birding today!  See you on the trails.

Click here to see part two of Birding 101: Introduction to Backyard Bird Feeding.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Sweet Sunset

caught BEAUTIFUL sunset last night

Sunset jan 2012

Sunset jan 2012

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Bald Eagle Over the Outer Loop in Louisville

Today, I had the rare treat of seeing a Bald Eagle up close and personal.  I was on the Outer Loop near I-65 when this Bald Eagle flew over me and landed in a tree right by the road.  I immediately reached for the camera and was able to snap off a few before it flew.

Bald Eagle

When the Bald Eagle landed in the tree he chased of the Red-tailed Hawk that was sitting in it and the size comparison when they were side by side was very noticeable.  The Bald Eagle looked to be almost twice the size of the Red-tailed Hawk and the Red-tail had no other option than to flee the tree.  As you can see in the photo above it looks as if the Bald Eagle has something in its talon, a starling maybe?  What do you think?

Bald Eagle

This is the third Bald Eagle I have seen in the area in as many years.  There have been nesting pairs reported from the Kentucky side of the river at the Falls of the Ohio and along the Salt River in Bullitt County.  They are becoming more common in the area with sightings seeming to increase every year.

Bald Eagle

If you are in the southern end of Louisville around the Okolona area, be on the lookout for this spectacular bird.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Beckham Bird Club Field Trip

Last Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012 The Beckham Bird Club took its annual trip to the road behind Bernheim Forest along Wilson Creek, to look for Bald and Golden Eagles. It is an area to where the Eagles migrate in the winter. Our leader of the trip, Eddie Huber, mentioned that they did not see any Golden Eagles on the Christmas Bird count this year, so we weren’t sure if we would get to see them. Maybe all the extra warm weather across the country delayed their trip just a bit, but fortunately, they had arrived in Kentucky!

Our first view was 2 Golden Eagles sitting in a tree way up on the ridge. Thanks to Mary for her own “eagle eye” in spotting them! As soon as we stopped, one of them flew away. Luckily, the other one stayed long enough for some of the members to get their spotting scopes set up. With the scopes, we got a really nice look at him.

Golden Eagle

This one took off after a few minutes, but reappeared about ten minutes later. He perched again in a tree, a little closer, then took to the sky soaring for several minutes allowing us to enjoy his splendor!

Golden Eagle
Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle
Golden Eagle

Later, after we moved on from the area where we had been observing the Eagles, a Juvenile Golden Eagle (notice the white patches under his wings, indicating a juvenile) flew over us, allowing us one last glimpse!

Juvenile Golden Eagle
Juvenile Golden Eagle

We had many other highlights from the trip!

These Common Snipes were spotted by Mary & Ben. There were quite a few of them hunkered down in the frosty grass! This was my first sighting of a Common Snipe! They are really cool looking birds. You have to look really close but there are about 4 or 5 of them here!

Common Snipe

It was a very cold morning, so frost was covering everything. I liked the way the light was hitting this little patch of frozen water and grass!

Frosty morning grass and ice

We came upon several flocks of Robins as well as other song birds eating berries!

American Robin eating berries
American Robin

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler

Hay bale covered with frost
Hay bale covered with morning frost

This beautiful Red-tailed Hawk flew up pretty close to where we had just pulled off to look for song birds.
Red-tailed Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk

This little Killdeer was in the frosty grass near the Distillery Lake!

Killdeer seen near the Distillery Lake in Boston, KY
It was an awesome field trip! Although, I was lucky enough to see 2 Golden Eagles on my trip out west last summer, I had never gotten to see them in Kentucky. They are usually western and northern birds, so we would only get to see them here in the winter during migration!

I didn't want to post too many pictures, so if you are interested in seeing more, you can check out the gallery I posted on smugmug by clicking here.
Also, you might want to check out the Beckham Bird club website. They have field trips almost every weekend year round, led by some of the best birders in the Louisville area! You can really learn a lot from these guys and gals!

Friday, January 13, 2012

It Snowed!!

In case you didn't hear from all your friends on Facebook over the past day... It SNOWED!! :)

Just wanted to share a couple macros I took today of the pretty snowflakes...

snowflake macro

Snowflake macro

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

dePaul School Q & A

As some of you may know, at about this time every year I answer questions Mr. Kepler's third grade class at the dePaul School have as they start learning about birds and their adaptations.  I used to answer their questions on my old blog the Landfill Bird Blog, and will be keeping the tradition alive here at Louisville Naturally.  His classes are always very bright and full of great questions and I'm sure this year will be no different.  Let's get started!

Q: What are some of the rarest birds you've seen?  

A: The rarest bird I have ever seen would have to be the Whooping Crane.  Whooping Cranes are the tallest birds we have in North America, standing at 5 feet tall and with a wingspan of 7.5 feet!  The reason they are so rare is because they were hunted for their feathers and their habitats were destroyed in the 19th and 20th centuries.  The number of birds dwindled down to 15 birds in the 1940's and have slowly come back since winning protection in 1967.  Today there are around 400 Whooping Cranes in the wild, which makes them one of the rarest birds in North America.  Below you can see a picture I took of a Whooping Crane in Brownstown, IN in 2009.

Q: What is the most deadliest bird you’ve seen?

A: That's a tough one.  Most birds as you know are not deadly, at least in the way a poisonous spider or snake would be.  Very few could ever pose a risk to people, so it depends on what you are.  If you are a fish, the Osprey would probably be the deadliest bird to you.  If you are a rabbit, the deadliest bird would be a Red-tailed Hawk.  If you were a grasshopper, the deadliest bird to you would be an American Kestrel.  If you were a worm, the American Robin would cause you nightmares.  And if you were a sunflower seed, the Northern Cardinal would strike fear into your heart!

Q: What is the coolest bird you’ve seen?

A: I usually say every bird is my favorite bird, but I guess if I had to pick one, it would be the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  Hummingbirds are fascinating because of their toughness, especially for their small size.  Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are only here in Kentucky in the summer.  So every spring they fly across the Gulf of Mexico, a non-stop flight of over 500 miles, and they only weigh 3 grams!  Hummingbirds favor red flowers that provide nectar that fuels their high speed flight.  Nectar is basically just sugar, so if YOU were a hummingbird, your parents would never yell at you for eating too much sugar, instead they would encourage it!  They have long beaks and tongues they use to lap up the nectar out of deep, tubular flowers.

Q: What do you do at your job at the landfill?

A: For those of you who may not know, I work at the landfill as a bird biologist.  For more on just exactly what that means you can visit my old blog to find out more. 

Q: How many different birds have come to the landfill?

A: A total of 155 different species of birds have been found at the landfill and I am always adding more.

These were some great questions guys and gals.  I'm sure you'll have more and I am looking forward to speaking to your class about birds and bird adaptations!

Look Small and See More - Land Snails

On a recent trip to search for salamanders I found only a single salamander species, and after some half-hearted picking up of snail shells I was astonished to find I had eight different kinds from the same hillside! Dan Dourson recently completed a field guide to the nearly 200 species of land snails found in Kentucky ("Kentucky's Land Snails and Their Ecological Communities"). It has the most useful taxonomic key to identification that I have ever used. For those who are unfamiliar with taxonomic keys the saying is: "they are made for people who can't use them by people who don't need them", but that is certainly not true in this case. It is filled with pictures, and even the relative novice can use it successfully.

A Few Floyds Fork Land Snails
Starting from top left large white shell going clockwise:
Toothed Globe, Mesodon zaletus
Proud Globe, Mesodon elevatus
Some kind of "Button" snail, Mesomphix sp.
Gray-foot Lancetooth, Haplotrema concavum
Flamed Disk, Anguispira alternata
Shagreen, Inflectarius inflectatus
Inland Slitmouth, Stenotrema stenotrema
Slender Walker, Pomatiopsis lapidaria (center tiny one)

Pomatiopsis lapidaria
Here's a closeup of that tiny one in the middle of the previous photo (slender walker). It's a minuscule amphibious species from seeps and moist hillsides.

Euchemotrema fraternum
Here's a closeup of a live upland pillsnail (Euchemotrema fraternum) (Not from Floyds Fork).

My wife found this great mixture of patterns and colors by looking small.

Floyds Fork Curve reduced
The winter hillside along Floyds Fork where I found at least 9 snail species and 1 salamander species.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Empty Nest

It's a not too chilly January day and I look out my window and see an empty nest. The Robins that were hatched there are long gone. This isn't the first nest I've found on my property, and certainly won't be the last. But, when I first spotted it last June, in a young tree, I was amazed at how the Robin created such a beautiful, safe, home. I peeked in every so often to see how they were growing... and before I knew it, they were gone.

Robins egg nest

Baby Robins

Baby Robins

Empty Robins Nest

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A New Years Eve Spectacular Starling display

I got a spectacular send-off of 2011 On New Year’s Eve! While driving home from Indiana right at dusk, I noticed thousands of Starlings flying over the Kennedy Bridge in amazing formations. Luckily, there is an exit right before the bridge that goes down to Jeffersonville, IN! I quickly took this exit, parked under the bridge, and went down to the riverwalk so I could get a better view of the Starlings showing off their aerobatics over the bridge. This view allowed me to get some shots with downtown Louisville in the background.
European Starlings

European Starlings
John F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge

European Starlings
I discovered that I was not the only one watching the Starlings. This Hawk took off flying into the large murmuration of Starlings. I don’t know if he got anything. If so, I didn’t see it happen. In this picture, I was fooling around with some of the special effects in my Picasa photo editing software! It’s called “focal zoom”.
European Starlings

European Starlings
I was so excited to have an opportunity to witness this. I believe scientists are still researching to determine why & how they do these amazing displays. Until then it will just be one of those natural things that may be unexplainable, but oh so cool to watch!
A view of The George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge (aka 2nd Street bridge)

Downtown Louisville, KY at dusk

I also took some video. Please keep in mind that this video was shot with an old point & shoot, so it’s certainly not the highest quality, and I tried to hold it straight, but was not always successful!

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