Thursday, February 27, 2014

When is an Owl Not an Owl?

It has been said that people should learn a language at a young age, when it is supposedly easier.  I think that also applies to the "language of nature".  Bird songs are a good place to start.  My young granddaughter knows at least 12 bird songs and she is not yet three years old.

How did this happen?  She was fascinated with my books that play the bird songs.  She played them over and over.  But that is not the amazing part.  She can also identify birds outside, in nature, with none of the other clues the book provides. 

When she visits our house, my favorite activity is to watch the birds with her.  She can identify by sight all of the birds that come to our feeder.  But she can combine what she has learned in the bird call books with what she sees at the feeder.  She'll say, "That's a chick-a-dee-dee-dee", mimicking the sound the bird makes.

But what about owls?  She doesn't say, "That's an owl." She will say, "That's a Barred Owl," or "That's a Great Horned Owl."  It is not that she can identify things, but that she can appreciate the differences...the diversity in nature.  To me, that is one of the first steps in nature appreciation.  There are many adults that can not recognize the difference, and who call all large owls "Hoot Owls".

Go to the Journey North site to hear both owls.  They are quite different.

So when is an owl not an owl?  When we recognize that there are different types of owls.  The diversity in nature can be appreciated by all..whether we are three, 33, or 103. And recognizing that diversity is an important step in nature appreciation.

Monday, February 10, 2014

My Cat is a Groundhog

As this super cold winter drags on, I don't think my cat has been our of the house in weeks.  This cat, usually a nocturnal hunter, has been curled up and, well, a groundhog.

The most active he becomes is occasionally opening his eyes to look out of the window.  Normally he would be switching his tail ready to pounce on anything that moves.  This time, he seems to be uninterested in the birds, squirrels and other creatures just outside his reach.  Maybe he is looking at the snow cover--unusual to persist this long in our climate. Maybe he is thinking that it is not fit for "man nor beast" outside.  And maybe he is right!

While he may not technically be hibernating, I think my cat has the right idea.  I would love to just curl under the covers and wait til spring...til the groundhogs emerge again.  Maybe someday soon we will all--groundhog, cat, and me-- be active again.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

One Good Thing About Winter

This year it seems that winter will never end.  It is one snow and cold event after another.  So I decided to look for the silver lining.  I wanted to create a list of 10 good things about winter....

and if you can think of others, please let me know.  But I only came up with one.  

In winter, we in the midwest get a chance to see birds that only occur here in the the Short-eared Owls.  These medium sized owls are really not that distinctive in appearance.  They are mostly mottled brown and have a large round head, like most owls.  They have much smaller tufts of feathers....that create the "ears"...than the Long-eared Owl.  In fact they are hardly noticeable.  But what is distinctive about these owls is their "floppy" flight.  With long wings, they fly close to the ground in open grasslands, flapping almost like a bat.

photo from Wikipedia

Each winter I visit the reclaimed strip mine ground of the World Shooting and Recreational Complex in Illinois to catch a glimpse of these owls as they hunt in the fields at dusk.       
This year I was not disappointed.  The owls had returned.  I counted about 6 or 7 of them as they swooped around the car and came to rest on the lamp posts around the complex.  As the last rays of sun hit the earth, I rolled down the window to get a better look.  I was surprised to hear something that sounded like a dog barking.  Braving the cold, I kept the window down for several minutes to locate the sound.  Finally it occurred to me; it was the owls!!

This distinctive sound was such a treat.  The  Short-eared Owl bark was new to me, and I love learning new things about nature.  Perhaps, the 10 good things about winter should be the 10 new things I have learned about nature...that seems more doable to me. 

10 new things I learned about nature this winter:
1. Short-eared owl bark
2. Visual image of eagles on ice...see previous post "Where is the Best Place to Eagle Watch"
3. Blue Jays mimic Red-tailed Hawks...see previous post  "Bird Song Wonders"
4. Bobcats live in a tree stump on my property...see previous post "Sub-Zero Hike"
I'll work on the rest of this list.

So maybe winter isn't that bad after all.  Still, I can't wait until spring because I'm sure I will learn many more things as I get outside more.  Until then, I have the list to complete.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Wildlife Adventure to Remember

Many people go to Puerto Vallarta for the "wild" life.  It was the wildlife that attracted me.  And I was not disappointed.  I saw whales...humpbacks...many of them, close up.  And dolphins jumping the waves behind our boat.  But the most amazing wildlife adventure was my sea turtle experience.  I was fortunate to be sitting on the beach as new hatchlings drew a crowd of interested tourists.

 I watched as these creatures fought their way over the sand, leaving behind the distinctive tracks.

I would later see tracks all over the beaches of this area.  These tracks were quite large, about 3 inches wide, but others were half the size.

Finally the hatchlings reached the ocean, surrounded by a large crowd of humans rooting for their survival.  Some well meaning people were picking up the turtles and taking them to the ocean....clearly a violation of the posted regulations.  But we all wanted to see these animals "make it".

I felt an inner joy as I saw the turtles, finally, after the long struggle in the sand, reach the ocean.
Here is where I thought the adventure would end.  But I was wrong.  Later I walked the beach and discovered information signs about the turtles--3 endangered species--that nest here. 

I also saw the turtle sanctuary, right in front of big condos and time shares. 

The sanctuary digs up known turtle nests and relocates them--to protect them from all the dangers of beach development and use.

These nest relocations are dated according to estimated hatch date, fenced and shaded to protect the eggs.  It takes as little as 45 days between eye laying and hatching with some species of sea turtles.

Again, I thought this would be the end of our turtle adventure.  But the next day, in almost the same place and about the same time, I was witness to another hatching.  This time the hotel security and a turtle worker (and parasail vendor) were on the scene quickly.

I was there before the others arrived and noted a small (about 8 inch) conical depression in the sand, with several dark spots.

Soon a nose and mouth became visible.

As I watched the struggle to emerge from the under the sand, the turtle worker, security, and lots of tourists arrived.

The worker quickly dug around the nest releasing almost 130 hatchlings.

As he dug, he counted the animals and placed them in a tray.  They were to be collected and released later that night--to avoid the daytime bird predators that might gobble them up on their long trek across the beach to the ocean.

Finally, at a depth of about 12-14 inches, the large leathery egg shell remains were visible.

After all the turtles were dug up, the egg shells were replaced and hole filled in.  This hatch was headed for shelter until nightfall.

Human intervention has helped them to avoid some dangers, but many dangers remained.
As I watched the sun set that evening, I was hopeful that, even though the dangers were many, these ancient creatures will survive to come back to these beaches for many years to come and that more people would be fortunate enough to have a wildlife adventure like mine.