Birding Behind the Wheel

DO NOT, under any circumstances, look at birds while driving.  (The title just had nice alliteration.)

Concentrate on the road, for heaven’s sake!

Trust me on this.  Please – do as I say, not as I do.

However, if you should happen to be riding shotgun down our state’s highways and byways and want to identify some of the most common of our fine feathered friends with just a glimpse from the moving car, here’s how I do it:

Observation 1:  Wow, that’s a big bird.

Observation 1a:  It’s black.  If it’s mostly black, you’re likely looking at a vulture.

Turkey_Vulture_(7172188840)

A soaring turkey vulture (Coragyps atratus) shows those long, white feathers I think of like the pale insides of my arms. Photo courtesy of Roy W. Lowe via Wikimedia Commons.

 

America_Black_Vulture-Turkey_Vulture-silhouettes

Note the white “arms” on the turkey vulture and the white “hands” on the black vulture.  Photo provided by Jim Conrad via Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

 

 

  • If it’s not really that big and it flaps when it flies (rather than soaring), its a 
    Crow_silhouette

    Sihlouette of a crow, photo provided by Naama ym via Wikimedia Commons.

    Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) or Raven (Corvus corax).  There’s practically no wayto tell the difference between the two at a distance, so call it whichever you like.  On the Chesapeake, Ravens are more often sighted around Baltimore.  (Maybe there are too many Washington Redhawks fans in southern Maryland for the ravens’ taste?)

 

 

Observation 1b:  It’s almost black. . . No, wait, it’s dark brown. . . with a white head and tail. . . and huuuge.  This bird is our big, beautiful, Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)!  Don’t worry if the head and tail are still brown or mottled brown and white, that just means it’s a young’un – bald eagles don’t get their adult plumage until they’re about four years old.

 

Observation 1c:  It’s got a dark back and a light tummy, it’s perched on a pole or wire, and it’s judging me.  Congratulations, friend, you’ve caught the wary eye of a hawk!  Hawks don’t usually soar (vultures do), they usually park it on a perch and watch an open area (e.g. highway medians, crop fields, meadows) for rodents running around – when they spy their four-legged food, they swoop down and snatch it up in their talons.  The hawk was only judging you (your car really) as not food, but something which might run over and animal and, therefore, be a source of free food.  Since you noticed it first as a big bird, it’s likely you’ve spotted one of these two hawks:

 

 

 

 

Red-shouldered_Hawk,_juvenile_(7653584216)

Look at the tail stripes on this juvenile red-shouldered hawk.  Photo provided by cuatrok77 via Wikimedia Commons.  

  • If its fan-shaped tail is black with slim white horizontal stripes, it’s the Red-Shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus).  It does, of course, also have a brick red patch on its shoulders, but this is hard to spot from the car.  (Which you are ABSOLUTELY not driving, right?!)

 

 

 

Observation 1d:  This bird is trying to screw me up – it looks like a cross between a hawk and an eagle!  Soaring above the water (like an eagle or vulture), but distinctly hawkish in appearance, the Osprey is a thrill to watch as it surveys the water’s surface, then suddenly drops into the drink like a stone, only to come up with a huge fish in its talons.

1024px-Pandion_haliaetus_2355

Ospreys soar, then dive.  Photo provided by Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Observation 2:  Wow, that bird is shaped just like the seagulls I’ve seen in so many paintings of the shore!  Yes, you’ve got yourself a gull, but not a “seagull” – there is no single bird with the moniker “seagull”; they’re just called gulls.  (Say it five times fast and you’ll make a funny sound.)  Maryland boasts several species of gulls, depending on the season:

 

Observation 3:  Holy moly, that must be a gazillion little black birds in that flock!  Whoa – look at the shapes the flock makes as it flies!  Here it is crucial that you not be driving.  Seriously!  Watch the road, not the bird show!  Or, better yet, pull over to a safe spot and take a few minutes to watch the bird show, because you’ve found a murmuration of European starlings (Sturmnus vulgaris)!  These birds are native to Europe, introduced to North America by a well-meaning human who had no idea the havoc that invasive species create in an ecosystem.  Despite the starlings’ total takeover of the lower 48 states and the obnoxiously noisy chatter that their huge flocks inflict wherever they roost, you’ll be hard pressed to find a person who will complains about them while watching a flock’s evening aerobatics.  If you were a good driver and didn’t stop to watch, check out these great murmuration videos on NPR and YouTube.

1024px-Sort_sol_pdfnet

Murmuration.  Photo provided by Tommy Hansen via Wikimedia Commons.

 

So those are the birding-from-the-car basics.  And here’s the bonus:

When writing the section on hawks, I couldn’t decide whether to include the Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) or not.  It’s not as big as the red-tailed and -shouldered hawks, it tends to stick to the forest (and backyard bird feeders) more. . . but I have seen one or two at the side of the road, so . . .  Well, as you can see, I decided not to include it.  Then I had to interrupt my writing to run out and get errands done before picking up my daughter from basketball practice, and who should I spy sitting on a wire right next to my little post office?

unnamed

Forgive the lack of zoom on my smart phone.  This Cooper’s Hawk looked much bigger in person!

unnamed-1

This phone close-up doesn’t help much, but you can at least see the mottled breast.

An Unusual Request

You’re about to read a request that I never thought I’d type:

Please go get in your car and start driving.

Even as I type the words, the thought of burning extra fossil fuels makes me feel guilty. . . but this is worth it.

If you live anywhere near the New River Valley, find an excuse to go for a drive on Interstate 81 this weekend!

All along I-81, the native redbud trees (Cercis canadensis) are in full bloom, lining both sides of the road with that bright pink that is almost purple (or that purple that’s not quite pink, depending on your point of view.)

It is absolutely spectacular.

I would have taken a hundred pictures to share with you, but I saw them while I was driving, of course.

So, please, for the sake of a happy soul, go see them yourself.  Go.

Go now.

Stop reading and go already!

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

The most teeth of any mammal in North America.

There are plenty of cool facts about Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana), but that one’s my favorite.

1024px-Opossum_1

This Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) was photographed by Cody Pope and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

How many teeth?  50!  (Adult humans have a measly 32.)

And those many, tiny teeth are employed chewing everything from fruits and grains, to insects, earthworms and snails, to snakes and mice and even carrion.  Opossums will even eat the skeleton of a dead animal that all of the other scavengers have left behind!  They’ve also been known to feast nightly on pet food left out for cats and dogs at night.

Opossums are about the size of a house cat, but it would be unfortunate to mistake it for one.  You do not want to startle a creature with that many teeth while it’s eating Purina from Fluffy’s bowl.  (Another excuse not to make that last run taking the trash out at night.)  You may be lucky and only get an intimidating show of all of those teeth, with hissing for extra fright value, or they may excrete foul smelling liquid from glands on their hind end.  If you’re unlucky, you’ll have a perfect impression of those 50 teeth on your ankle to show the doctor at the emergency room; biting the dust instead of biting you is never guaranteed.

Playing “possum,” or feigning death is actually a reaction of last resort for the opossum; it’s more like fainting into a coma from extreme fear and stress.  You’d think this would make them highly desirable to predators, but it actually benefits the opossum in two ways:  predators who eat live food will be turned off and not eat a “dead” opossum, and large animals protecting their young will not fear, and therefore not fight, a frozen lump of fur.

Opossums are a classic example of Virginia’s nocturnal creatures.  They have excellent night vision, with a tapetum lucidum (reflector in the back of the eye common among nocturnal creatures) that doubles the amount of light they see in what we would call “pitch dark”.  That tapetum also reflects the light of a flash light back as orange, which is another great way to distinguish them from a house cat, whose “eyeshine” is yellow.

Didelphis_virginiana

A Virginia opossum at night – if you look very closely, you can see a hint of the orange eyeshine, but since the camera’s flash isn’t shining directly at the opossum’s eye, this picture doesn’t show the full effect. Photograph taken by M. Betley and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

These little nocturnal predator/scavengers are at home in both forests and suburbs, in the trees as well as on the ground, and will nest in empty tree cavities, which they pack with leaves, or in another animal’s burrow.

They are also North America’s only marsupial, growing both in the mother’s womb and then, later, in her pouch.  Opossum babies, called “joeys” just like their Australian marsupial cousins, the kangaroos, are born tiny, the size of a honeybee.  They then crawl up into their mothers pouch where as many as 13 of them safely nurse and grow for another 10 weeks.

When the babies finally poke their heads out into the moonlight, mom lets them ride on her back instead of in her belly pouch, caring for them for another three months.  They can even use their long (sometimes longer than their whole body), furless, pink and prehensile tails to grab and lift joeys that have fallen back on to their backs.

And opossums don’t wait for sprint to start making babies – their breeding season begins now, in December, and may stretch all the way through next October.  In that time females may have two or even three litters.  They make up for a short life span (only about two years in the wild) by being prolific joey producers, which is good news for hungry coyotes, large owls, red foxes, and hawks.  And, sometimes, humans.  ‘Possum stew, anyone?

Opossums are active year-round, even on the coldest winter nights.  To observe them (again, from afar, smart people), go out with a flashlight and look for that orange eyeshine, and listen for the raspy clicking sounds they use to communicate.

 

This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  Learn more about common nocturnal animals with these posts:

Eastern Screech Owl

Skunk

Hawking the Road (Red-tailed Hawk, Common 10 Birds of Prey)

The only reason I tolerate long drives is because I can look at beautiful vistas and try to spot wildlife.

My particular favorite is looking for hawks in the barren trees at the side of the highway during holiday driving.

Whether I’m driving or riding shotgun, spotting hawks in the roadside trees is fairly easy; I just scan for lumpy branches.  Most of the time the lumps turn out to be squirrel nests or clumps of leaves caught in a crag, but maybe 1 out of 10 lumps is a hawk!

900px-Buteo_jamaicensis_Red_tailed_hawk_b_1.6.2008

A red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched in a tree. Check out that tail and those talons! Photo provided by MONGO via Wikimedia Commons.

The easiest, largest lump to find is the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).  They perch, still as statues, in the trees above the median, scanning the grassy area for a juicy little rodent that they can swoop down on and snatch up with their talons.

Red-tailed hawks, sitting nearly two feet tall and with a wing span over four feet, are the largest hawks in this area, beating out the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) by a few inches and the broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus) by over a foot.

Red-tails, like most hawks, are not the large birds you see soaring in the sky most often; those are usually vultures.  Look for how the bird holds its wings – if they’re in a slight uptilt, forming a wide V, think vulture.  A lighter bird with wings held flat means you may be seeing a hawk.

1200px-Buteo_jamaicensis_7

Red-tailed hawk in flight. They look like a brown lump when perched, but when they’re flying overhead you’ll not only a brown head on a mostly light colored body, except for that rufous tail, of course! Photo provided by Bear golden retriever via Wikimedia Commons.

Red-tails will take advantage of a thermal (rising column of warm air) to carry them up to great heights where they can survey a whole field for prey.  They’ll also use a mountain updraft to hunt via “kiting,” which I described in my Hanging Rock post.  Also, it must be noted that the springtime soaring and free-fall coitus of a mated pair is fairly spectacular.

In everyday life, though, hawks are watchers and swoopers as they go about the business of catching the little mammals that make up the large part of their diet, including voles, mice, rats, rabbits, and squirrels.

Whether flying or perching, the red tail is this hawk’s most reliable identifying feature.  A rusty red that many birders describe as “rufous” colors their entire tail, though it can also look peach or orange if sunlight is pouring through it.

Though you’ll pass them fast at highway speeds, you’ll be surprised how much detail you can see in a perched hawk.  I even spot the little hawks (Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned) from the highway sometimes.

You’ll have to take the first few miles to let your eyes adjust to differentiating lumps while also not driving off the road, but after that a long drive can be hawk heaven!  Even the kiddos might pry their eyes from their tablets to look for a hawk or two; have the right side of the car compete against the left side for who can find the most hawks.  My best count yet was headed west on Route 66 in northern Virginia after Christmas a few years ago – I saw a hawk every mile for at least 17 miles!

This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  To learn more about Common 10 animals, check out:

American Kestrel (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

Eastern Screech-owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

White-tailed Deer (Common 10 Mammals)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Common 10 Insects)

Skunk (Common 10 Mammals)

Black Bears (Common 10 Mammals)

Mother’s Day at Claytor Lake: Part One

Water makes us happy.

It’s something about the sweet smell of freshwater or the negative ions in the air or the saltwater-filled cells in our body having an ancient longing for their ocean home.  Something.

I don’t really care what, actually, I’m just so grateful that in my beloved mountain home, I have family with a cabin on Claytor Lake who let us come out to visit.  It’s because of this tremendous stroke of luck that I got to spend Mother’s Day with my husband and daughter and in-laws looking out over deep blue waters and nearly summer-green mountains.

But the awesomeness doesn’t start at the lake.  It starts on the drive down where, from my Mother’s Day Throne (AKA the passenger seat) I was able to look out at my kingdom and observe long and well as my dear husband kept the car on the road.

The drive from Blacksburg to Claytor Lake is a lovely one when you’ve got the time to look around.  Just on the big roads I saw:

Black locust trees in bloom along Route 460 looked like trees covered and dripping with heavy lace. Photo courtesy of By Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)trees in bloom along Route 460
looked like trees covered and dripping with heavy lace.
Photo courtesy of By Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Colonies of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) dotted across fields amongst grazing cattle.   Photo courtesy of "Podophyllum peltatum Shenks Ferry 1" by Nicholas A. Tonelli from Pennsylvania, USA - Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve (10). Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Podophyllum_peltatum_Shenks_Ferry_1.jpg#/media/File:Podophyllum_peltatum_Shenks_Ferry_1.jpg

Colonies of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) dotted across fields amongst grazing cattle.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas A. Tonelli via Wikimedia Commons.

Mayapples are named not for their fruit, but for their blossoms, which are blooming right now and reminded the early namers of apple tree flowers. Photo courtesy of Cody Hough via Wikimedia Commons -

Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) are named not for their fruit, but for their blossoms, which are blooming right now and reminded the early namers of apple tree flowers.
Photo courtesy of Cody Hough via Wikimedia Commons –

After steering off the highway at exit 109, the drive gets even better; winding through curving mountain roads, past cabins and farms, climbing hills and turning blind corners, observing “country” driving manners with a nod or smile or fingers lifted off the steering wheel in friendly acknowledgement of strangers who might as well be friends.

This photo of phlox (Phlox paniculata) is taken in bright sun.  In the shade of the forest edge, the blossom color is a bit darker and much deeper. Photo courtesy of Atilin via Wikimedia Commons

This photo of phlox (Phlox paniculata) is taken in bright sun. In the shade of the forest edge, the blossom color is a bit darker and much deeper.
Photo courtesy of Atilin via Wikimedia Commons

Wild phlox (Phlox paniculata) and its garden siblings were blooming all along the roadside gardens and forest edges.  The purple of phlox is neither dark nor light, but a deep medium purple.  Ugh.  “Deep medium purple” sounds oxymoronic and way too pedestrian for this gorgeous color.  Let’s call it “phlox purple” and set a trend – it’s nothing like lilac or lavender or royal purple or orchid, and it deserves its own shade name.  (Why doesn’t purple have more shade names?  Blue has hundreds.)

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is shown here feeding on a native coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).  Photo courtesy of Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) - via Wikimedia Commons

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is shown here feeding on a native coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).
Photo courtesy of Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) – via Wikimedia Commons

Flitting through that phlox was a season first for me (perhaps that’s why spring is my favorite season – so many “firsts” for the year, each one reassuring and joyful):  an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)!  They’re common enough to be both Virginia’s State Butterfly and its State Insect, but they knock me out every time.  These bright yellow, black-striped and blue edged beauties are nearly 4.5 inches across; giant, yellow flower petals just floating and fluttering through the sky.

Check out those long outer tail feathers on this barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) in flight.   Photo courtesy of Alpsdake via Wikimedia Commons.

Check out those long outer tail feathers on this barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) in flight.
Photo courtesy of Alpsdake via Wikimedia Commons.

The “swallowtail” part of this butterfly’s name means that it is grouped with other butterflies (they make up the swallowtail family) that have two “tails” on their hind wings that reminded early naturalists of the points at either end of a swallow’s tail.  (Swallowing these butterflies tail’s is not recommended.)  We’ll have to come back to swallows themselves the next time I come back from Claytor; several members of the swallow family are native here and spend their summers feasting on the various insects that hatch by the millions from the surface of the lake.

I don’t actually associate spring with seeing butterflies, though they seem to be a centerpiece of every mass produced spring-themed card and product.  The truth about butterflies is that their caterpillars and/or eggs have survived a long winter and need their food sources to leaf out before they can fill their hungry selves up with enough energy to form a chrysalis and become adult butterflies.  The real butterfly bonanza comes from mid-summer through fall, when two or three generations have matured and laid eggs and little wings are fluttering everywhere.

The first butterflies to arrive in spring are those whose caterpillars feast on trees that leaf out early.  The host plants for Eastern Tiger Swallowtails’ eggs and caterpillars include

  • Wild black cherry (Prunus serotina),
  • Common Lilac (Syinga vulgaris),
  • Sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana),
  • Tulip poplar/tulip tree (Liriodedron tulipifera), and
  • Willow (Salix spp.),

all of which have bloomed or are blooming (the lilacs smell unbelievably good right now) and are nicely leafy caterpillar buffets.

The mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterflies were likely named by Scandinavian settlers in America, according to Wikipedia.  A widespread species, this butterfly is called a "Camberwell beauty" in England.  However, its limited northward range would have meant that Scandinavians would have been less familiar with it.   Photo courtesy of D. Gordon E. Robertson via Wikimedia Commons

The mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterflies were likely named by Scandinavian settlers in America, according to Wikipedia. A widespread species, this butterfly is called a “Camberwell beauty” in England. However, its limited northward range would have meant that Scandinavians would have been less familiar with it.
Photo courtesy of D. Gordon E. Robertson via Wikimedia Commons

I was gifted with another butterfly sighting once we’d arrived and were seated happily on the dock – a Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) was flying over the water toward us, probably heading for the giant weeping willow on the property to lay its eggs.  Mourning Cloak caterpillars also enjoy a nice meal of willow or poplar (or elm or hackberry).

And then I was lost in conversation and good food and laughter, with only the occasional whip of the head to try to identify a bird streaking by.

As afternoon softened into the golden light of evening, conversation turned again to nature (it seems to do that around me quite a bit) and my in-laws and I got to listening to and talking about bird calls.

But that’s going to have to wait for Part Two of this post, because there’s much more to tell and I’m a nearly an hour past lunch.  I’m so hungry I could practically eat willow leaves.  Or tulip poplar.