Monday, December 30, 2013

An Ipswich Sparrow

On the way home from Christmas travels, my wife and I stopped at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge for a morning of birding. While the main draw is the large number of wintering ducks and geese, we were intrigued by reports of several Snowy Owls on the beach. We checked with a ranger to see where the owls had been seen most recently and she told us that they had not been seen in two days. Since we saw a Snowy Owl over Thanksgiving weekend, we figured we wouldn't spend a long time hunting for these. But we did drive down to the end of the parking lot and have a look around. There were a large number of people out walking the beach and fishing so any owl would be a good distance away.
But sine the light was now behind us, we decided to scan Tom's Cove for any waterfowl or shorebirds that were too hard to see from the main road. There wasn't much in the water but as we approached we saw a pale sparrow working through some beach grass. It wasn't very cooperative in giving us good views but did stay in the same general area for several minutes. And a second one joined a few minutes later. We searched our field guides but couldn't quite nail the identification down. I took several photos in hopes that they would help. After returning to the car and consulting the books in more detail we returned for some more looks, with an eye on what was needed for identification. Since it was a bit of a puzzle for us I thought I would walk through it here.
An early look at the bird
The sparrow was pale and ran across the sand instead of flying. We quickly closed in on either the Ipswich subspecies of Savannah Sparrow or a Vesper Sparrow. Although we have seen Savannah Sparrows before, I don't remember seeing an Ispwich and the Vesper would be a life-bird. A Savannah should show a bit of yellow in front of the eyes and have a shortish tail. The Vesper would have a longer tail and a distinct white line along the bottom and back edge of the cheek patch. The tail was how to see most of the time but gave the appearance in the field of not being noticeably short. And there is a distinct line around the cheek patch. But a Vesper shouldn't have distinct lining on the head, especially the line above the eye, the supercilium. After much back and forth and looking at the photographs when we got home, we decided it was an Ispwich that just wasn't showing any yellow. A second bird that we saw when we returned has the slightest hint of yellow as seen in the bottom two photos.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Yellow Warbler

For Thanksgiving, my wife and I went down to New Bern, North Carolina to spend some time with my Aunt and Uncle. They are avid birders, much more so that Sharon and I, and fellow vegetarians. So we planned several days of good food and great birds. But we weren't expecting as good as birding as we got.

Thanksgiving morning Sharon and I stayed around the hotel in New Bern. My Aunt and Uncle were coming up around lunch time and then taking us to some friends of theirs for dinner. The weather was cold but sunny so after breakfast, we walked around a park next to the hotel. We saw American Coots, Mallards, Ruddy Duck, gulls.  All expected birds. But then as we returned to the hotel we passed some shrubs as the walkway passed under a bridge. And there among a few Yellow-rumped Warblers Sharon spotted this bright bird.

It took us a few minutes to piece together the clues: warbler; all yellow including tail and undertail coverts, a thin, yellow eye ring and light red streaks along the sides of the throat. It was a Yellow Warbler. A bird that should be in Central or South America by now. But it was happily picking insects off the leaves and ignoring the people walking by on the path.

We returned about an hour later with my Aunt and Uncle and quickly refound the bird in the same vine we had left it. It gave us great views as it worked its way along the shrubs. We passed on the sighting to one of the other Thanksgiving guests, actually our host, and he refound the bird Friday morning in the same spot. That spot is in the circle that my Aunt and Uncle have for the Christmas Bird Count so hopefully it will stick around until then. If the bird has been finding sufficient food so far then maybe it will survive the winter and get a head start on its fellow Yellow Warblers in the spring.

Yellow tail and undertail coverts are diagnostic for a Yellow Warbler.

Side view showing yellow all over the body and light red streaks along the neck.

Yellow Warbler picking insect off a leave

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Some Random Links

I've come across several interesting science articles that last few days and thought I would share them.

  • Science News reports on the strange lifestyle of the Pink Fairy Armadillo. This small armadillo from Argentina lives mainly underground moving dirt from in front of it to behind. It then backs up to compact the newly moved dirt. Those are quite some claws it has.
  • Several places, including National Geographic, are reporting on the discovery of ancient seawater being found under the crater formed when an asteroid impacted the lower Chesapeake Bay 35 million years ago. The water is estimated to be between 100 - 135 million years old and had been stored in the existing sediment. The impact just buried the water even better. [I live on the edge of this impact crater and was in the area when the extent of the crater was discovered in the mid 1990's.
  • NPR is reporting on the Dance to your PhD contest where entrants make short videos of interpretative dance to explain their doctoral research. There are some pretty interesting dances.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Master Naturalist Boat Trip

Back on November 9th I took my final field trip as part of my Master Naturalist basic training. I started the classes in early fall and have been taking 3 hours classes every week plus 4 field trips. Graduation is coming up the second week of December.
For our last field trip we took a boat trip aboard the Bea Hayman Clark out of Norfolk. The trip was run by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. We spent the day traveling around the Elizabeth and Lafayette Rivers.
My adventure started even before boarding the boat. As I live much closer the downtown Norfolk than most of the others in class, I decided to drive to the boat directly instead of joining the car pool. Along my preferred route I first ran into an overpass that was closed for road work. The detour wasn't well marked so I had to wonder through a neighborhood for several minutes until my nav system got me back on course. Then five minutes later, the road was closed due to a car accident. Again, no detour. And the accident was close to a water crossing so the GPS kept trying to get me back on the same road. I eventually pulled out my paper map and found another crossing. And then, just as I see my destination, the lanes in the road start being blocked off. There was a 5K run that had the main roads in Norfolk closed for the morning. Luckily, I found a police officer who pointed me towards an open parking garage. But my 25 minute drive had taken 45 minutes.

It was a surprisingly warm day, even out on the water. We went out the Elizabeth River to where it joins the Chesapeake Bay and stopped and talked about the bay and some of the troubles it is having: over-fishing, run-off, and summer algae blooms. We then headed up the Lafayette River and put out a trawling net and brought up a net full of fish. We then sorted the fish before doing some identification and discussion of the different species. We then returned all of them to the river. The shrimp was particularly interesting to me as I didn't realize how translucent they were.

The trawling net ready for deploying
A rather large flounder that we caught

Pulling up the oysters
After lunch we pulled up some oysters. When the English first arrived on the Chesapeake Bay oysters were common throughout the bay. An oft-quoted factoid is that the oysters in the 1600's could filter all of the bay's water in three to four days. It now takes almost a year. Much of Hampton Roads was built on the oyster industry, even into the twentieth century. The CBF is working to restore oyster reefs by having people grow them for a year in protected waters and then taking them out to join an established reef. In fact, my wife and I did that several years ago. But in what we pulled up, only about a quarter of them were living. One of the other students found this collection of oyster shells and barnacles that is reminiscent of of another animal that likes the water (but not salty).

A "froggy" oyster shell

Our final stop was looking at crabs. For this one I had the opportunity to pull up and crab pot, remove the crabs and rebait the pots. Again, we studied the crabs we found before returning them to the waters.
All in all, it was an enjoyable and educational trip. There weren't as many birds as I was expecting but I've never had a chance to get such insight to the underwater live.
Our captain with a female Blue Crab

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Here comes the water

A cold front passed through the area a couple of days ago and then stalled off the coast and has been forming into a coastal storm. A nor'easter if you will. We are always susceptible to tidal flooding when there is a strong coastal storm. Luckily, this one seems pretty moderate so no threat to property, just a wet walk to the pier.

My wife and I took a stroll out to the pier just before high tide. The water is peaking at about 5 ft above the mean low low water (MLLW) line.

Neighbor's yard. The water comes much closer to their house than it does ours.

The water is up to mid-calf

This is usually all marsh grass with no water in sight

Can you find the creek?

Adventure Girl braving the storm

The neighbor's boat is about to set sail from the boat lift

Monday, September 30, 2013

Sharing lunchtime

Saturday I had just returned from my first volunteer activity with the Virginia Master Naturalist and decided to have my lunch out on the deck. It was fall weather here but Saturday was heavy overcast and breezy. But still well worth eating outside.

I was partway through my sandwich when I noticed a spider wrapping up a bee. The web stretched from the table umbrella to my whiskey barrel pond. It was a very hairy spider. My wife hunted on Bug Guide and identified it as an Orb Weaver.

It was a fun lunch to share with "someone" special.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Marsh Spiders and Hungry Egrets

Today I was was out in the marsh replacing some of the more decrepit boards on the pier. I took my camera out with me since in the past spending that much time in the marsh has led to some interesting sightings even if I am making a lot of noise. Today, I saw this interesting web. At first I thought it might be something like a wasp's nest since I was looking without binoculars. But when I brought the camera along I realized it was a web. And then the spider came out from underneath. I've looked around but haven't yet identified the spider. Any suggestions would be most appreciated.

The sticks are part of a marsh shrub. And here is a close up of the spider.

And finally, out in the creek was this Great Egret feeding. I finally made a video where I didn't turn the camera vertical first. I knew someday I would learn.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The sunflowers are coming; the sunflowers are coming

I decided to spend some time this morning walking around the garden before heading in to work. It has been a slow week in the garden. The weather has been cool, autumnal even, but dry and we are stuck between the summer blooms fading the the fall blooms not yet here.

Our mound of native sunflowers (I need my wife's help IDing them but she's been traveling) are getting close. Each stalk has several bloom on them.

This is what they will end up looking like.

And while I was out a scared off a couple of deer. And they flushed a Turkey Vulture that was perched in the Oak tree hanging over the yard. I followed the bird back to the marsh where I could see it looking out over the marsh.

It was definitely a nice walk through the garden. Now back to the rat race.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A great birdy weekend

This past weekend we had two incredible bird events in our back yard. Saturday as we were walking back to the house from the pier we saw a Pileated Woodpecker working over a dead branch. After watching for a few minutes I went in and came back with my camera. The bird stayed for at least 10 minutes until I moved on to other pursuits.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker checks things out.

And then Sunday while we were eating lunch we saw a kettle of Bald Eagles rising above the marsh. In the first group there were 10 eagles and 1 Red-tailed Hawk. Then a few minutes later a second kettle formed with 5 more Bald Eagles. I presume they are starting their move south.

What a fun weekend. And be sure to check out everyone else's birds at Wild Bird Wednesday.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

LADEE Launch

Last night NASA launched the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) from Wallops Island, VA. It was the first launch from Wallops to leave Earth orbit. And it was close enough to home for me to watch from the back yard. 

The weather was cool and clear here, starting to feel like autumn, so my wife and I had an evening camp fire complete with S'mores. What a yummy prelude. The a little after 11:00 pm we headed out to our dock. We had done a fair bit of research to determine where we should watch it from. Thanks to some wonderful data put together by the launch team we could map the flight in Google Earth and test our view. So we went out and settled in to watch.
I had set my alarm for 2 minutes before launch. According to the launch team data, we should see the rocket on the horizon around 20 seconds after lift-off. But I suspect that we had a particularly clear view because the first thing we saw was an orangish glow on the horizon. Several seconds later it brightened and see could see the rocket streaking out from behind the distant trees. 
To photograph the launch I set up my camera to take 20 second exposures. I then used a remote release so we could sit several feet away and not be distracted by the lights on the camera and the camera wouldn't be affected by any shaking we did on the pier. I started the above exposure just as we realized that the glow was probably the rocket igniting. 
The rest of these were taken in sequence with minimal pauses between shots. You can see in the second one a gap in the streak as the first stage dropped off and the second ignited. The second stage dropped off in the middle of the fourth picture below and the rocket coasted for a few seconds before the third stage ignited in the fifth picture. 

After the rocket moved further right you could see the plume of smoke left when the third stage ignited (below, all the way to the right edge).

And finally, I layered all of these together to get one complete view of the launch.
Both the viewing and the photographs turned out as good as I could have hoped for. And now we know where to look for future launches as more and more launches are planned from Wallops Island.