Friday, July 17, 2015

Two for Two

We are lucky where we can drive a little ways and be in farm country. Washington and Sullivan Counties have miles of rural roads and small farms. Of course, we also have a million people interspersed in that farm land with little clumps of new homes. Recently, as the housing boom as reignited, we have watched woodlots and open wet lands come under the builder’s table saw.

Old wood lots, even ones in corners and middles of the fields, are disappearing and with them habitat in particular habitat for red-headed woodpecker. Human progress is tough on the natural world.

The owl population is healthy in some parts and maybe a little sparse in others despite the onslaught of housing developments. Owls like big trees and structures for nest building and shade. Barn owls and silos are a good combination but don’t count on a farmer to keep up his silo just to save the owls.

One spot is near the Paddle Creek Preserve in Sullivan County. A barn owl family with at least two young have set up household and put on quite a show for us. I was lucky to join Gil Derouen, Roy Knispel, and Jim Anderson (and later, Glen Eller) the other evening to see one adult and two young leave and enter their silo apartment. This was the first barn owl --essentially a “new” life bird-- in twenty some years for me and #100 for the year. We used to see regularly a barn own on the VA campus but that particular building had been renovated and the owls are gone.

Back in the early 90s we could watch a great-horned owl on ETSU’s campus. That old snag is long gone, too.

In our part of the world we have great-horned, barred, saw-whet, screech, and barn owls. In Johnson City great-horned and screech show up often. The great-horned like to hoot in winter time which draws me out of the house, barely getting a coat on, in my slippers, only to have them maybe hoot once more and then stop. I have heard screech owl in my back yard most summers but as of this writing I’ve heard them once!

This barn owl was a great sight. The sky was clearing after three days of rain. The night was calm, warm, but still humid. We were aways off the beaten track so the road wasn’t busy. We were also watched closely by Molly, the neighborhood’s very large bloodhound and by one very large, very ornery, very showy bull. He finally left us alone but only after doing all those very aggressive gestures that showed his great displeasure. All this made it a good night to watch an owl. They would perch and fly, return, perch some more, fly again. Pretty amazing to watch!

The next day Gil, Roy, Reece Jamerson, and myself toured eastern Sullivan County again. At the same place we had less luck. Among our other stops were Austin Springs, Osceola Island, Beaver Pond, and Middlebrook Lake.

The accumulated results (a series of hits and misses!) included: kingfisher, many swallows, Cooper’s hawk, cormorant, wood ducks, only two turkey vulture, blue-headed vireo, a mass of hummingbirds attacking a mimosa tree, one lone coot, spotted sandpiper, mallards in their eclipse plumage, and a black-crowned night heron. It was one of those days when the bird watching got better as the day progressed.

Of special interest in the last few days was the cackling goose at Middlebrook Lake. To my eye it was almost indiscernible from the Canada geese until you get them side-by-side in profile. Then the size difference is obvious. Otherwise? Still, there it was. Number 101.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

July 7, Out in the County

June is gone and with it a lot of rain. July has started by drying out. Reece Jamerson, Roy Knispel, Gil Derouen, and I toured, it seemed, every road in the county. And there are a lot of roads. But, we had some good luck and some good looks.

A blue grosbeak right off the bat. Then: geese, female widgeon, swallows galore, green and great blue heron, both vultures and a red-tailed hawk, killdeer, female woodies. We thought we had a Orchard oriole but it ran off and hid well but I think Roy finally got a view. Red-headed woodpecker, two of them, which are always nice and getting harder and harder to find. A summer tanager. Tanagers have this red body that you’d think would be so obvious but they can hide in plain sight. A glimpse of a grasshopper sparrow. Buntings all over the place. A clutch of purple martins.

The day was partly and rather hot. We ate lunch at the Bowmantown Ruritan Park in the company of a neighbor’s chocolate lab. There are some lovely views of the rolling hills of Tennessee out there. The rain has helped green up the fields. Hay is getting cut. Winter wheat is ready to harvest. Tobacco looks bright. If nothing else we had a great day to be out in the country.

 Roy Knispel's picture was from a good distance. Long lenses sometimes just can't quite reach out like you'd want. And the red-headed woodpecker is only about eight inches tall. They were having lunch in a tree trunk that was twenty-feet high but had been topped. We could also see two possible nesting holes but neither bird entered either one. The background light was partly-cloudy. Just one of those hot, summer days in east Tennessee.