Saturday, June 22, 2013

Rain: Late Storm Brings 0.75 Inches

While I was away traveling in the South, we had an unusual late rain storm that appears to have dropped 0.75 inches of new precipitation. That brings our total for the 2012-2013 rain year to 25.6 inches (the rain year goes from July 1 to June 30 of the following year). Oddly, there is rain in the forecast for tomorrow and the following day, so we may end the year somewhat better off than looked likely only a few weeks ago. Average annual rainfall in Santa Rosa is a little more than 36 inches, so we will fall short of normal by about 10 inches in any case, barring a massive storm in the next few days--which seems unlikely.

Friday, June 21, 2013

On the Road--Down South: Houston to Home (June 20, 2013)

I arrived home safely from Houston yesterday. It was a smooth flight despite flying over a long line of the big clouds I call "fluffy bumpies"--those puffy cumulus clouds that can momentarily make an aircraft suddenly feel like it's dropping from the sky. As planned, I woke up early and made the short drive from Houston Airport to Jesse Jones County Park to do a little birding before departure. It was hot and wet, but I did see a few noteworthy birds--a Pileated Woodpecker, a Prothonotary Warbler, a Carolina Wren, Summer Tanagers, Cardinals, and another warbler that I've yet to identify. I was able to record its song, so I'm hopeful of an identification with a little work.

Looking back at my list of new birds from the trip and comparing that with records at home I see that I added 24 new birds to my life list: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, White-winged Dove, Purple Gallinule, White Ibis, Glossy Ibis, Carolina Chickadee, Prothonotary Warbler, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Little Blue Heron, Roseate Spoonbill, Laughing Gull, Black Vulture, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Anhinga, Wood Stork, Mississippi Kite, Swallow-tailed Kite, Royal Tern, Northern Parula, Painted Bunting, Fulvous Whistling Duck, Eastern Towhee (although probably seen before, it wasn't on my list), Field Sparrow, and Common Ground Dove. That brings my life list to 408.

The garden grew a lot while I was away. The new grape vines I'm training up the front of the house are about ten feet tall now. In the vegetable plots we have zucchini and other summer squash ready to eat. Tomatoes are on the way. Arugula, lettuce, spinach, and other greens are all doing well. Eda mame, green beans, various peppers, lemon cucumbers, and eggplant all look strong, although not a lot of eggplant have developed yet. I hope the honeybees are well. I'll need to have a look at them this morning. I enjoyed my trip, but it's nice to be back in a cool, dry climate, and to be in a place where I know I can get healthy, wholesome food.  

[The unidentified "warbler" turned out to be a White-eyed Vireo, identified by song.]

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

On the Road--Down South: Natchez, Mississippi to Houston via Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

Another long day of driving, but I decided I wanted to be in Houston tonight so that I don't have to drive tomorrow before my flight home. I got into the Southeast Texas area around 3:30 and spent the late afternoon at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. It was difficult to find, but once there worth the trouble. It is mostly a vast expanse of brushy areas studded with small trees. Here and there are marshy areas. Part of the Refuge borders the Gulf. The result is a good variety of habitats for birds. As usual, there were Mockingbirds everywhere, but the first bird I saw on this, my last day of this long birding trip, was a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher--a nice bookend: The first bird I saw on my first full day of the tip was a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. I saw three or four at Anahuac.

Orchard Orioles were plentiful as well (left), as were Mourning Doves. I was a bit surprised to see Willets and very surprised and pleased to find Common Nighthawks both flying and resting on many of the fenceposts. The Nighthawk has always been one of my favorite birds--even before I started birding seriously. I used to love to watch them hunting at dusk in my Dayton, Ohio neighborhood. It was nostalgic to see the familiar white patches on the wings.

Other birds I saw included: Red-winged Blackbird, Bobwhite (heard), Boat-tailed Grackle (or Great-tailed Grackle--I still can't reliably distinguish these), Eastern Meadowlark, Eastern Kingbird, Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Killdeer, Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Starling, Laughing Gull, White Ibis (about 30), Glossy Ibis (about 8), Dickcissel, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Common Gallinule, Black-necked Stilt, an unidentified duck, Black-bellied Plover, Green Heron, Little Blue Heron, and Fulvous Whistling Duck (life bird No. 23 for the trip). A sparrow I have yet to identify (I took marginal photos) could add another life bird. I have quite a few pictures to look through.

If I can rouse myself early enough tomorrow, I may go to Jesse Jones County Park, which, according to my iPhone, is about 12 minutes away from my hotel. So, I may get in a little more birding before departure, but I may sleep in. Looking back, four birding locations stand out in my mind: Lacassine Pool and Lake Martin near Lafayette, Louisiana; the Savannah NWR; Edisto Beach State Park; and Anahuac NWR, but Edisto Beach, where I saw the Painted Bunting was very special.

On the Road--Down South: Selma to Natchez by way of Crystal Springs and Vicksburg (June 18, 2013)

I left Selma, Alabama early today, heading west toward Vicksburg. Vicksburg was one of the pivotal battles of the Civil War, and I've always wanted to see the place. En route, I realized I was near Crystal Springs, a name that has resonances for any blues fan. Robert Johnson was born in Hazelhurst, the neighboring town to the south, but, more importantly in my mind, it was in Crystal Springs that Robert Nighthawk learned to play guitar and perfected his art, playing mostly local gigs with his brother Percy and cousin Houston Stackhouse. No one seems to remember Nighthawk here, but I wanted to say I'd been to the place. I visited the Robert Johnson Blues Museum, which is a mildly interesting hodgepodge of material, much of it unrelated to Johnson. It's run by one of Johnson's granddaughters. I had lunch at a place that claimed to serve "world famous soul food." It was nothing special. After lunch, I took a walk along some of the very pretty wooded trails at Chattauqua Park, just outside of town. I found a couple of Summer Tanagers in the trees, led to them by their calls, which I had remembered from the day I first saw these birds, at Edisto Beach State Park a couple of days ago. An historical marker notes that it was in this park that the first PTA (parent teacher association) was formed--an unexpected tidbit.

The Vicksburg battle site is a bit overwhelming. It would easily take an entire day to see it in detail. I drove most of the 18-mile road that winds through the Union and Confederate siege positions and visited the USS Cairo Museum--the raised wreckage of a Union ironclad that went down in the Yazoo River, just north of its present position. Later, I drove along the Mississippi to look at other positions--to see where confederate guns were placed to control the channel, although the Mississippi suddenly changed course rather dramatically in 1874, and the river's course moved about a mile away from where it had been during the Civil War. After the change, the Army Corps of Engineers dug a channel along the city's original waterfront to facilitate navigation, so water again flows in some of the areas it would have during the battle. The numerous monuments at the site--some dedicated to the men of whole states, some to regiments, some to individual soldiers who died during the siege (many with bronze bas relief portraits) are a testament to the emotional impact of what happened here. As at Andersonville, the way the site is embellished with these attempts to remember, to memorialize, to preserve is as impressive or more so than the place itself. According to one plaque I read, Vicksburg is among the best documented battlefields in the world. Soldiers from both sides of the conflict came back after the war to relocate their positions and identify them with markers that give remarkably detailed accounts of action that took place nearby, including lists of wounded and dead at each spot. Later, driving around Vicksburg, I happened upon a plaque about blues legend Willie Dixon, who was born in Vicksburg.

From Vicksburg, I drove south toward Natchez. I was aiming to get as far as Baton Rouge, but again my plans were thwarted by a violent thunderstorm. I ended up ducking into a restaurant and finding a hotel room in the town. Today I aim to get out early to try to see the bird sanctuaries in southern Louisiana that I missed on the way out. Back to Houston tomorrow, then home.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

On the Road--Down South: Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge to Selma Alabama (June 17, 2013)

I arrived near the Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge in the early afternoon, in a deluge of rain. I was afraid I'd have to miss the place altogether, simply continuing to drive west, but the sky began to clear not long after I found the place and I ended up spending an enjoyable couple of hours along the "wildlife drive" that winds through much of the refuge. Perhaps because the rain had just ended, there was a lot of activity in the trees and low brushy areas I passed through. Almost immediately I saw Red-headed Woodpeckers--a bird I haven't seen since I rode my bike from Dayton, Ohio to Oxford, Ohio to visit a long-distance girlfriend, probably around 1974. I noticed an Eastern Towhee. I saw a first-year Orchard Oriole, and a Yellow-breasted Chat. American Goldfinches everywhere. Indigo Buntings singing. The usual Mockingbirds and Mourning Doves. Bobwhites calling nearby, but invisible in the dense brush. A white Ibis flew over. Yellowthroats singing on the tops of tall weeds. I even got two new birds. I saw what looked like a Mourning Dove flush, but it had no white in its short tail and the wings were the color of Cinnamon--Common Ground Dove, life bird No. 21 for the trip. Not long afterward, I spotted a pair of sparrows that I was able to get a good look at and photograph. They turned out to be Field Sparrows (below), life bird No. 22 for the trip.

I ended up in Selma, Alabama, having skirted Montgomery to the south. I followed the trail of the 1965 civil rights marches to protest white resistance to black voter registration drives in the area, crossing the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge. I was hard pressed to find a hotel. Selma is a much smaller place than I imagined. I was reduced to eating fast food for dinner. This morning, I head further west, aiming to stay in the Vicksburg area tonight before turning south along the Mississippi and then heading for the Gulf Coast again.

On the Road--Down South: Plains, Georgia (June 17, 2013)

After leaving the Andersonville Prison site, I found myself passing through Plains, Georgia, home of former President Jimmy Carter. It's a tiny town. I stopped briefly to have a look around, visiting a little antique mall. On a table near the entrance I noticed a small black cat curled up, napping in an enameled bowl. The woman working in the mall told me the cat naps there every day. She said that President Carter had been in town the day before. Carter's original campaign headquarters, in a train depot, is preserved. There appears to be a large Carter historical center on the edge of town, but I moved on west and south, heading for the Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge.

On the Road--Down South: Andersonville Prison (June 17, 2013)

Yesterday, June 17, I headed directly for Andersonville, GA, the site of Camp Sumter during the Civil War, better known as Andersonville Prison. It's a place I've always wanted to see because an ancestor, according to family tradition, was captured at the Battle of Gettysburg and eventually ended up at Andersonville, where he died.  A docent at the site said that many who are said to have died there actually died en route to prisons further south as Union forces, outliers of Sherman's forces as they headed for the sea, approached from Atlanta. Surely the place itself has no memory, but it is somber nevertheless. Camp Sumter today is just a large field, but parts of the stockade around the perimeter of the confinement area have been reconstructed, based on excavated posthole evidence, and earthworks outside the palisade, though eroded, remain, along with the earthworks of a small star-shaped fort at the south end of the camp. The stockade was built by slaves from timber that was cleared on the site. Each trunk was cut to 22 feet. The poles were placed side by side in a ditch five feet deep that was then filled in, forming a solid wall of wood above ground. The perimeter was about 3/4 of a mile long including a late expansion, the whole enclosing about 16 acres. There were only two gates. The photo above shows the top of the stockade in the distance from the perspective of someone standing outside a V-shaped earthwork at a corner of the confinement area. Cannons were positioned in these earthworks, some pointing outward to guard against Union raiders, some pointed inward toward the prison, loaded with scattershot.

What is striking is that the "prison" was nothing more than this expanse of bare ground enclosed by the stockade. The prisoners were left to find their own shelter and even their own water. They dug wells in the field, which slopes gently toward a creek. The ground is studded with concrete markers about ten inches in diameter, each topped with a round metal plate etched with a number and the words "Historic Well." The Confederates thought it an excellent place for a prison because of the access to water. The idea was to put latrines and the like at the low end of the enclosure so that the water would wash sewage away from the living and cooking areas, but the stockade blocked the flow of ground water, creating a boggy marsh that quickly festered with waste. Most who died at the prison died of dysentery spread by the contaminated water. At peak, about 100 men died every day.

Because the site is mostly an empty field, those who came back after the war were moved to create monuments to those who died (about 13,000 of the 45,000-50,000 prisoners that were interred at Camp Sumter perished there).  There are large stone monuments erected by the various northern states that lost men at Andersonville. Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, and Rhode Island were among those I saw. Large monuments stud the cemetery, about a quarter of a mile from the prison site. After the war ended, Clara Barton and a former prisoner, Dorance Atwater, who had made a duplicate list of the burials and smuggled it out of the camp, came back to identify graves before the identities of the men were lost. Burials were initially marked with wooden markers, but these were replaced with the headstones now on the site. Barton and Atwater did a good job. It's remarkable that only about 400 of the thousands of burials are marked "unknown soldier."

Sunday, June 16, 2013

On the Road--Down South: West Across Georgia (June 16, 2013)

Spent most of the day driving today. I stopped at the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge on my way back west from the Savannah area. My experience there was similar to others I've had--a lot of bird song, but very few birds to look at. They remain mostly hidden in the dense vegetation. I did see a Chipping Sparrow or two. A couple of young rabbits checked me out before hopping away nervously. I tried to stop at the Harriet Tubman Museum in Macon, but it was closed. I made a brief stop at Madison County Recreation Park, also along the way. There I saw a Muscovy Duck and a beautiful male Orchard Oriole. Earlier in the day I saw more Blue-grey Gnatcatchers. I ended up in Columbus, Georgia, the only town vaguely along my route that seemed likely to have hotels. Tomorrow, I plan to backtrack a little to visit Andersonville Prison National Monument. From there I plan to do more birding, this time in Mississippi, before heading for Vicksburg to see the bluffs there that Grant conquered.

On the Road--Down South: A Day of Birding

Yesterday, June 15, was a day devoted entirely to birding, frustrating at first, but ultimately rewarding. In the morning I headed for Edisto Beach State Park, on the coast between Savannah and Charleston. Along the way I stopped at Donnelly Wildlife Management Area, a remote expanse of woods with a lonely road through it. I drove the road for miles, car windows down, listening and looking for birds. Eastern Wood Pewees, I recognized. I got a fleeting glimpse of a pair of sparrows, but they moved off too quickly to identify. They were most likely Chipping Sparrows. The road ended at what looked like a ranger station with a decaying barn and gas pump and a small cornfield. On the wires there I saw Eastern Bluebirds, Eastern Kingbirds, and doves. On the drive back, I could hear woodpeckers and flycatchers, but most of the sounds were unfamiliar except for a Pileated Woodpecker in the distance and Cardinals singing everywhere. In the end, I saw very little, and was mostly left wondering what birds were making all the noise.

Back on the main highway, heading for Edisto Beach again, I spotted an unfamiliar-looking hawk. I hastily pulled over and found myself in a patch of trees around a little-visited cemetery. The flowers on the graves were plastic, faded, and grey with dust. Slipping through the trees to get a view of the sky above, I saw that the hawk was nothing unusual--a Red-tailed Hawk--and my attention was quickly called away by unfamiliar singing in the trees. I spotted a warbler-sized bird (possibly a warbler) with a brilliant yellow throat, a collar of patchy grey, and a pale yellow-white breast and belly. It seemed greyish above with two thin white wing bars, but I never really got a good view. Its vocalization was distinctive, though--a fairly flat trill that reminded me of an Orange-crowned Warbler (but without that bird's characteristic change in pitch during the trill), finished off each time with a single chirpy note. I heard the same bird on the trails around Edisto Beach, so it's probably common. I don't know what it was, but I was able to record the song. I'm hoping to figure it out later*. Before I left I also saw a Carolina Wren in the trees.

At Edisto Beach, the usual birds were at the ocean--Laughing Gulls, Brown Pelicans flying in lazy rows, and a few Royal Terns out over the water. For lunch near the beach I tried a shrimp Po' Boy. The shrimp was good, but I wasn't terribly impressed by the sodden iceberg lettuce and white roll it came in. After lunch, I drove to a small visitor center and campground registration post where I parked and started on a long loop through woods with an extension back out to the coast. I spent the rest of my day walking trails winding through the woods and here and there muddy expanses of sea grass nearer the ocean. These marshy areas are strangely empty of birds except for Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets here and there, but the woods were active. I mostly saw Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice, but got another good look at a Red-bellied Woodpecker. There was a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher in an isolated stand of trees close to the coast--a bird I hadn't realized lived in South Carolina. On the walk back through the dense woods I saw a flash of red that wasn't a Cardinal. It was a male Summer Tanager. A second one appeared and two females as well, for life bird No. 19 on the trip. Finally, when close to returning to the car, a small bird caught my eye. I put my binoculars on it and was thrilled to see it was a plump male Painted Bunting--one of the birds I most hoped to see while in the South (life bird No. 20 for the trip). It obligingly flew to a nearer, well-lit perch and allowed me to photograph it at my leisure before it flew away. The whole day was worth the tanagers and the bunting (top photo). Along the way, I passed a funny little post office, the name of the town painted on by hand.

*I was subsequently able to identify my mystery bird as a Northern Parula (life bird no. 18 for the trip).

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