Monday, February 28, 2011

L Program, Part B

This past weekend was the second in the three part L (for Learner) Judges Program. Last month I complained about getting up early to be there by 7:30 a.m., after an hour's drive and two hours of morning chores. This time I had to get up even earlier... 4 a.m., because temperatures were in the teens and everything in the barn was frozen (including me). I had to haul hot water from the house to thaw the barn water faucet so I could run hot water out to the frozen water buckets for the goats. The horses had to do with ice broken on their water tubs with a 2 x 4.

But it was worth it. As an auditor, I get nearly as much information as the candidates at a fraction of the cost. This time my WEG companion and good friend, Ruth, flew in from California for the session. She has already booked her flight and rented a car for the third and last session, in March. She did not understand why more local dressage fanatics did not attend. I don't either. It is an amazing opportunity to learn from top judges.

This time there were many videos of horses doing the various movements at the various levels (Training through 2nd). We grew better at quickly assessing what was good and bad about their performances and what was the core reason for any problem. Judge Trenna Atkins gave the presentation and drilled the candidates on their reasons. (We auditors were able to improve our reasons without having to admit our cluelessness publicly.)

In the afternoons, we moved to the arena and watched live horses performing those movements. Well, Ruth and I moved to the arena the first day and nearly froze to death in spite of multiple layers of clothes and blankets. The second day, we stayed in Devonwood's lovely clubhouse and watched out the big windows with sound piped in. We were sitting above the action, right at C, for a perfect view.

The handout for purchase has most everything needed to review, but I took a ton of notes again and have typed those up for future reference. There are always little goodies that are not in the handouts. Particularly appropriate for this weekend when my "grandhorses" were in California showing against the top talent in the country, was an aside by Trenna about the competitiveness in California shows. She told a story of a judge that gave a "6" to a halt/reinback that would have earned an "8" anywhere but in California. Trenna told the story while advising the candidates that they are not going to see many good halt/reinbacks in their L judging careers, so reward them when they see them. It's a tough movement to do well.

Meanwhile, down in California, Nicki and Lily were 5th in the first day's Grand Prix competition (Steffen Peters and Ravel were 1st!!), and 3rd in the second day's class. (Ravel only showed the first day.) The classes were big and the scoring low. Although Lily did not perform as well as they'd hoped, it was her first show this year under horrible weather conditions (wind and rain and flooded arenas) and she did as well or better than most of the other horses in her Grand Prix classes.

We are now having our own torrential rains (at least the snow and ice have melted!) and wind storms. I am glad to be home doing morning chores during daylight hours and not driving anywhere. But I will be ready in another month for Session C of the wonderfully informative L Program.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Great Backyard Bird Count

Tomorrow is the last day for the four day Great Backyard Bird Count. It's the easiest of the counts and surveys that I do. Anyone can participate. Just count birds for at least 15 minutes wherever you are. More info here:

I count the birds in front of the barn while I'm milking goats. I always watch the birds that come to the grain I throw out daily but on these count days I actually write down what I see. And I write down whatever other birds I see during the course of doing chores. On the first day of the count, Friday, I saw five bluebirds behind the barn while I was filling water buckets for the goats. These are the first bluebirds I've seen here in over a year. Two years ago a pair nested in our bluebird boxes, but something happened to the male and the female was left to raise one surviving nestling on her own. That baby fledged successfully and mama and baby left without returning. I keep hoping for a new pair to take up housekeeping here.

Mostly what I've seen the last few days is one or two Cooper's Hawks keeping all the birds in an uproar. The California Quail that have come to feed every day for the last year have quit coming at all, thanks to the predatory hawks. This fellow, after chasing everyone off yesterday, was himself harassed by an angry crow until a second Cooper's, much bigger so must be the female, arrived to chase off the crow. This guy is what birders call a "sub-adult", meaning he's changing from his juvenile, first year, plumage into his adult plumage.

Today the resident pair of mallards were joined by a pair of Canada Geese. These are the "neighborhood" geese: they seem to wander between our neighbor Vicki's much larger pond and neighbor Paul's pond. Nothing bothers them... not our dog walking by nor a tractor going noisily past nor even my riding lawn mower backfiring right next to the pond. These geese have nerves of steel.

A suet feeder hangs near the house so I count the Black-capped Chickadees hanging from it as I walk from house to barn or vice versa. The feeder can only be accessed from below. I was tired of feeding jays expensive suet. They could go through one block in about 30 minutes. Dark-eyed Juncos feed on whatever they find in the lichen hanging from the tree, and sometimes sit above the suet feeder keeping the chickadees away, but the juncos have not figured out how to hang upside down and eat suet.

Although not countable, the prettiest bird of all is our peacock, who patrols the area where I throw grain, intimidating the smaller Golden-crowned, Song and Fox Sparrows, Spotted Towhees, Juncos and even the brassy Steller's and Scrub Jays. They don't seem to realize they are probably safest when the peacock is nearby. No Cooper's or any other hawk messes with him.

No matter how often I watch birds, I always learn something new. On this count, I learned, by prowling through one of my raptor books, that a Cooper's Hawk can be identified by the bands on the underside of its tail: they do not match up. Check out that photo above and see. But I also learned that the books are not always right about everything. All my books say that Accipiters (of which a Cooper's Hawk is one) are silent except at their nest site. Wrong. My Cooper's hawks talk every day when sitting around. They make a mewing sound. When annoyed, they make a scolding sound (the same sound the books say is made only near a nest). And just recently, I've heard them make a tiny cheeping noise, like a baby bird, when I approach very closely to their hiding place. Soon after I hear that little cheep, I can expect a Cooper's to burst out of the area. One did so yesterday and managed to dunk himself in the creek on his way through the brush. He landed nearby and shook himself free of water drops, looking rather annoyed. I tried to get his photograph but he demurred, taking off in what I imagined to be a fit of pique.

I look forward to one more day of having a good excuse to take time out from chores to watch birds.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Spring Cleaning

Lest everyone who knows me well has a heart attack upon reading the title of this blog, let me assure you that I am not spring cleaning the house. Rather I am spring cleaning flower beds whenever the rain stops long enough to allow. The house is as big a mess as ever.

I took a photo a few days ago of blooming primroses. It did not come out well, but it serves as a contrast to the same (as near as I could figure) now-weeded area of that flower bed. Okay, so the lighting came out differently and the change is not too impressive. It will be when the daffodils bloom. We have snow low on the hills this morning and the weather folk say we may have snow on the ground by Thursday, so I predict the daffodils will open by then. We always have snow on blooming daffodils.

On the same day I took the photo of the unweeded flower bed, a Cooper's Hawk came hunting for the California Quail I feed in front of the barn every morning. He missed that day but he'll be back, rain or shine. We have so little shine around here the birds have to forage and hunt no matter the weather.

This morning, a very pretty squirrel was sharing the grain with the Quail in front of the barn. A few days ago, this squirrel was looking out of the Wood Duck nest box that is not far from the front of the barn. Two years ago, a Hooded Merganser nested in that box. Last year, a Saw Whet Owl wintered there. It seems to be a multi-species nest box. (The "very pretty squirrel" I've since been told, is an Eastern Fox Squirrel that has moved into urban areas of the west. We are anything but urban so I don't know what it's doing here. I still think it's a very pretty squirrel.)

The rain has stopped for the moment, so I'll head out to liberate another flowerbed. It beats cleaning house.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Wedding Anniversary #44

We should know better than try to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Whenever we do, it turns out badly. For our 25th, we spent a night at the wonderful Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon. Each room is decorated for a different author. We had the Herman Melville room, complete with ocean decor and a slanted floor. This proved to be a bad mistake.

On the way to our romantic getaway at the ocean, we stopped for lunch. Johnny had potato salad. Johnny spent the night of our 25th anniversary trying to negotiate the slanted floor between bed and bathroom over and over as he disgorged his apparently poison potato salad. He did not feel well enough by morning to eat the delicious breakfast that was part of the room price.

Since then, we've stuck to butchering chickens or hogs on our anniversary. It's safer.

But this is our 44th and in Japan double digit anniversaries and birthdays are significant. We thought we should do something special. For weeks we talked about what we would do. Unfortunately, we never came to a decision. I suggested horseback riding or birdwatching. Johnny just rolled his eyes. Other ideas were exploring forest roads near us, something he likes to do and can do without further injuring his back since driving doesn't seem to bother it. Or we could go to the beach and watch the waves (and birds). Johnny did not seem excited about any of the possibilities.

With nothing being decided, I declared an anniversary weekend, starting on Friday, right after Johnny returned from picking up feed and I finished unloading the half ton he had brought. And so we drove up Agency Creek Road to the 500 road making a circle past the tribal campground and back down Agency. On top, we could see Mt. Hebo, still sporting snow. Johnny thought it looked cold over there. (On Sunday, we found out it was.)

Back down on Agency, we discovered a probable territory boundary between two pairs of Dippers as one pair flew upstream and another pair foraged and sang just downstream. This was a pretty good start to the anniversary weekend, I thought.

Alas, things went downhill from there.

On Saturday, Johnny wanted to get some vine maple branches cut for barn owl roosts in the new goat barn and turkey roosts in the chicken house. Rain was going to set in that afternoon so, between my horse feeding and goat milking chores, we went down to our woods. Johnny drove Dad's ride-around tractor mower pulling a cart. We found an area of vine maples overgrowing where a path used to be. I was happy to have the path, at least the first part of it, opened up again. However, vine maple branches do not come out of a tangle easily. Johnny sawed and I pulled and toted and cursed. A few were only 8 feet long but most were twice or three times that long.

Finally Johnny had enough branches to suit himself, tied them together and to the cart, and off we started up the hill toward the homestead. We made it about half way before the slick tires began spinning. It was not possible to back up with 24-foot branches dragging behind, so I lifted the bundle while Johnny backed. More cursing. More spinning.

Luckily for us, neighbor Joe showed up just then with his "quad", hooked the winch to the front of the tractor, and pulled us up the hill... and up onto his quad as his winch got stuck! Well, that was exciting. Joe managed to unstick the winch just before it pulled the tractor over him. Only a small piece was broken off Dad's little John Deere in the process and we did make it to the top of the hill. Although we needed another pull to get it off the grass and onto the driveway.

That afternoon we did more road exploration up Agency, but the truck started making a very weird sound so we turned around. That seemed to make it happy as it stopped making the noise. We continued onward and found one good road connection we had not known about. Things were looking up.

That evening we went to a fun chocolate tasting fundraiser for the local museum. As it turned out, the chocolate affair may have been the highlight of the whole anniversary weekend.

Sunday morning dawned and I expected a "Happy Anniversary!" from Johnny. But he said nothing. "Are you awake?" I queried.

"Yeah." Silence.

So I said it first, "Happy Anniversary!"

"Oh, yeah, this is the day, huh?"

Not a good start to our 44th. It soon grew worse.

I told Johnny, (since he seemed unable to make a decision on the day's plan), that I was going up the road after chores and if he wasn't home from church I'd leave without him. He usually hangs around and talks to people after church. I asked him to come straight home today.

Johnny's church service ends at 10:30. At 11:15, he still wasn't home. At first I was worried... maybe he'd had a heart attack... why else wasn't he home? But then I grew angry... he'd forgotten our anniversary already again! By the time Johnny came in the door, I was in tears, trying to eat my lunch... alone. He said he thought it would take me longer to do chores and he didn't know he wasn't supposed to stay after church. He was talking to friends. (I suspect those conversations were the highlight of the weekend for Johnny.)

I stormed out of the house with my binocs and camera, got in the car, and started to drive off. He came hobbling out and climbed in. I drove to the locked gate where I wanted to hike and look for a lake we'd seen on the map. As he hobbled slowly behind me, I strode off up the road and up the hill, still fuming. But every little while a Pacific Wren gave voice to its beautiful lilting song. It's very hard to be anything but happy listening to that lovely sound. Eventually, I calmed down. The lake turned out to be a swamp along the creek...

...but I walked to the end of every side road just to make sure. I found several areas of still water along the creek and standing water here and there, but nothing that could be called a lake.

The hike helped my attitude anyway. I returned to the car and Johnny, who had turned around at some point and was waiting for me.

I handed him the car keys and said, "Do what you want. The rest of the day is yours." We drove home, collected maps, and headed out in the pickup to explore the 400 road to the 14, where our section of the Christmas Bird Count is. By now, it was raining. I was glad I'd had my hike before the weather turned. From the 14, we continued on past South Lake, looking cold and still in the fog...

past chilly North Lake...

to Mt. Hebo, where there was still a trace of snow, then down the other side of Hebo past the closed and gated Hebo Lake to Hwy 101.

"Didn't know I was taking you to the coast today, did you?" Johnny quipped. "Now I'll take you out to dinner."

Unfortunately, nothing was open other than bars in Hebo or Cloverdale so on we went to Woods and Pacific City. I had on my muck boots and did not feel like going anyplace fancy so suggested we buy food at the market and eat in our pickup while watching the waves at the ocean (and looking for birds). We pulled into the market and Johnny started searching for his wallet. I had not brought my purse. He, as it turned out, had not brought his wallet. So home we went for waffles (gluten-free) and bacon (home raised, cured and smoked). Good food. But we never did see the ocean.

Next anniversary, I think we'll butcher chickens or hogs.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Searching for Splats

We live on Agency Creek. Upstream we reliably see American Dippers (pictured above) here and there along the rushing, boulder-strewn stream that parallels, in many areas, Agency Creek Road. I have often wondered just how many Dippers have territories on Agency, where those boundaries are, and where the birds nest. I thought perhaps some graduate student might someday do research on the Dippers in the Oregon Coast Range and would like me to survey Agency Creek. But then I realized that, as much as I love all my bird surveys, I hate the paperwork. Research projects always come with paperwork. They need it for data analysis. So... the solution is to do it myself for myself in my own way. And that's just what I've been doing.

I elected to start as far up Agency Creek as the road follows the creek, which is about 6 1/2 miles from the beginning of Agency Creek Road, a road that starts about 1/4 mile from our farm. My end point is our farm. We rarely see Dippers on our portion of the creek as it does not have as favorable habitat as upstream... we're on the flats: Dippers like mountains.

Dippers are not the only ones who like this stretch a few miles upstream: it is a favorite swimming hole for the locals.

So far, I have spent five strenuous afternoons (before and since my Black Oystercatcher survey week) bushwhacking along the creek, cataloguing splats. I have worked my way downstream to within 1/2 mile of our farm, with Johnny dropping me off at my starting point each day and picking me up again when I'm too tired to continue. Although the stream is lovely, there's not much of it I can access easily. Here is what some of the areas I fight my way through look like.

My view of the creek is often through a veil of branches.

Dippers are songbirds that live entirely on streams, dipping up and down (and splatting) on boulders and rocky shorelines before diving into the current to walk along the bottom gleaning insects and other small edible items from the stream floor. They are amazing birds able to keep their footing with their clawed toes in a current that would knock a person down. There are splats on these rocks in the midst of the rapids. Dippers love this sort of area. And they are not even as big as robins.

Wherever the splats are most plentiful is the area the birds spend most of their time foraging... and is, I'm hoping, closest to their preferred nest site. That has been the case with the two nest sites I already know about. Dippers tend to reuse their nests. One I've been watching for five years.

Here's a Dipper posing with a splat. But I don't need to see the birds to know they've been there. In their favorite spots, it's quite obvious... (And, no, "splat" is not an official term: it just seems to fit.)

These little gray birds love to sing wherever the rapids are noisiest. Their song is long and melodious, somewhat like that of a Mockingbird. Happily for me, late January and February, when I've been surveying, seems to be prime singing time for Dippers as they attract mates, establish and guard territories, and, who knows?, perhaps just sing because they love making music together with the stream. Dippers are said to mate for life but their life isn't very long (longest known record is 7 years) so they not infrequently find themselves looking for a new life partner.

Here is a pair of Dippers that I found yesterday, on my most recent trip upstream. I'll be back to their territory in April, hoping to find them feeding nestlings.

Not only Dippers live along the creek, of course. A pair of Common Mergansers grew quite tired of me, I'm sure, as they frequented the same stretch of creek I did every day I surveyed.
Pacific Wrens are common and seem to pay me little attention. This one I nearly stepped on.

A Belted Kingfisher kept me entertained one day, screaming whenever it flew. Whether it was screaming at me or not I don't know.

And, of course, there are all those unseen creatures that have come before me, leaving their prints in the mud and their trails for me to follow through the woods. (Once in awhile, those trails are good, like this one.)

I am, perhaps, happiest when I am exploring the world of rushing water and wildlife... even though I'm usually getting scratched and muscle sore in the process. But I also happen to think that it is important to find out how many American Dippers are in this area now and if their numbers go up or down. Like Black Oystercatchers on the coast, Dippers are barometers of the health of our waterways. If the shellfish become unhealthy to eat, the Oystercatchers will tell us. Likewise if stream biota quality diminishes, the Dippers will suffer. And, ultimately, so will we.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

BLOY Winter Survey: Day Four, Cascade Head

Today, I hiked Cascade Head, my last planned survey for the week. I am neglecting Neskowin which used to be in my survey area, given up because it takes access into a gated community to be able to look down on potential Black Oystercatcher sites. I had been given the combination to the gate but they seem to change it frequently and it's too much of a hassle to keep up with the changes. Plus I rarely see BLOY there. Those are my excuses.

Not that Cascade Head is exactly easy to survey. We used to canoe across the Salmon River at very low tide, then hike out the beach to scope 3 Rocks and South Cascade Head, where we seldom found BLOY. We have also gone through the private and gated Camp Westwind, with permission, to access the beach, but that walk is just as long and the BLOY just as scarce.

Last year, I discovered that I could see 3 Rocks from the Nature Conservancy trail up Cascade Head, and also look northward from the Head where there are quite a few offshore rocks: potential BLOY territory. Once I even saw a BLOY on one of those rocks.
During the summer, the road to Hart's Cove gives me a way to access the Cascade Head trail from the top, a much shorter and more level hike. But that road is closed this time of year. So today I hiked from the trailhead near Knight's Park (our canoe launch site), through giant Sitka Spruces to the open meadow on top in glorious sunshine. The trail is long and steep but civilized and well-maintained, with stairs and bridges, even wood planks over marshy areas... but a rigorous hike. Sometimes the "stairs" are tree roots. A volunteer Peregrine monitor I met last year hikes it every morning, just for exercise. I kept reminding myself of that as I puffed and panted my way up. My photos are of the more level areas... I was breathing too hard to hold the camera steady on the steeper portions.

Along the way, a very cute squirrel happily posed for a photo... while I happily took a breather while taking his picture.

Out on the meadow at last, I found no BLOY but did see two Peregrine Falcons. And a herd of about 40 elk grazing on the very edge of the Head with the ocean behind and far below.

And, perhaps the best encounter of all, I met a fellow hiker who proved to be interested in Black Oystercatcher surveying... and has access to the gated community at Neskowin! Here's hoping she decides to take over that area... and ease my guilt for deserting it. Much as I love having an excuse to visit the coast often, I do have other interests... and work... waiting for my attention.

The hike down was easier and quicker. Johnny had driven me to the trailhead for my hike up and met me there on my return, cutting a good half mile of steep terrain off the route to Knight's Park where he had waited... there is no parking at the trailhead. Then, of course, we headed for Otis Cafe, our traditional dinner stop after a Cascade Head/3 Rocks excursion. A welcome finish for our 2011 Black Oystercatcher Winter Survey.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

BLOY Winter Survey: Day Three, Cape Kiwanda

Wow! Three days in a row of good weather and cooperative birds.

Today Johnny and I climbed the dune at Cape Kiwanda and found a pair of Black Oystercatchers hanging out on their usual resting spot aside a cliff, waiting for the tide to recede. Perched in his customary lookout post on the top of their cliff was a Peregrine Falcon.

In the inlet below the BLOY and falcon, I could see Surf Scoters. Although this photo is blurry, it shows the bright red legs. This is the first time I've seen Scoters from above and the first time I knew they had red legs!

While I was admiring birds on the north side of the dune, Johnny was watching a single Black Oystercatcher, foraging with gulls on the south side and at the tip. After awhile, I joined Johnny. Finding black birds on black barnacle-strewn rocks can be a challenge. Without the gull behind him, this BLOY would be tough to pick out!

Cape Kiwanda is the closest part of the coast to our farm so this is where we brought our sons as they were growing up. I'm sure that climbing the dune is to this day what they think of when they think of going to the ocean. We've been climbing the dune at Cape Kiwanda for over thirty years. But every year, the dune and the cape change shape, sculpted anew by wind and water. This year was no exception.

These white streaks at the end of the cape were new (to us) this year. Lime leaching out of the yellow sandstone that Cape Kiwanda is made of?

On the way back from the end of the cape, I spotted my pair of BLOY foraging on a rock way off the north side of the cape. The tide had finally gone out enough for them to leave their cliff-side ledge. The low rock in the far distance in the photo left is the one they're on. Below is the rock a little closer. See if you can find the two BLOY silhouetted against the water in the zoomed in photo on the right.

The single BLOY was down on the southwest flats as we left, still foraging with a host of gulls. For a real challenge, see if you can find it in the photo below left! It takes practice to pick out distant black birds. We look for their red bills or their pale legs. Hint: it's on the left side of the photo, above and left of the gull. If you're lucky, the black bird will have sky or water behind, as that same bird does in the photo on the right.

I wonder if this lone BLOY will find a partner before nesting season? We'll be back in May to find out.