Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A hawk, an eagle and a rafter of turkeys

Winds from the northwest ripped through western Wisconsin on Monday, leaving behind a crisp fall day with gray, foreboding skies.  It was so cold this morning, I had to turn the heat on in the house.  I didn't look forward to going outside.

Just before noon, I headed over to the village of Pepin, just north of where the Chippewa River delta constricts the flow of the Upper Mississippi, creating the 40-square mile "Lake Pepin."  I expected to see migrating birds of prey and I wasn't disappointed.

The sky was full of Turkey Vultures soaring high above the bluffs and coulees, their wings in a diagnostic dihedral "v," rocking in the wind.   Less than a mile down State Road 25, I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk, perched on a fence post.   I put my blinker on, pulled to the shoulder, put my flashers on and ever-so-slowly opened my window.

She turned her head and gave me a "what are you going to do" look, as I poked my camera lens out the window.  I could see a big bulge in her upper chest - a full crop.   Maybe she'll sit still long enough for me to focus and snap the shutter.  She gave me a shot, then lifted her tail to defecate.  I got one more before she took off to a higher perch nearby - the utility pole way over my head.

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk

I didn't want to harass her, so I checked the blind spot at the back of my Prius, pulled out and continued on my way, through fields of stunted and dried yellow corn, shamrock green alfalfa and dried soybeans ready to harvest.

I headed south then west on State Road 35 - the Great River Road - through what's known as "Tiffany Bottoms," the flooded woody delta of the lower Chippewa.   Both the River and the "bottoms" were the driest I've seen in a decade.  

I passed through the village of Pepin and headed up the bluffs on Jahnke Hill Road - just south of Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder's birthplace - to look for raptors.

I didn't expect to see one right in front of me, in the middle of the road.  So close, I had to slam on the breaks.

But there he was:  a bald eagle, feeding on a rabbit carcass.  He looked at me, then looked at what was left of the rabbit.  I scrambled to turn on my camera and open my window.   But I was too late - he took off.  By the time I caught up with him, he was spiraling up to the heavens on a thermal.

Note the mottling, dark head, and white diagonal line and triangles under the wings.  
Looks like a juvenile Bald Eagle  (1st year bird, page 127, Sibley guide).  

I stopped off at my friend's house for lunch, and stayed awhile to help her figure out a "new" internet browser program, then headed back down Jahnke Hill Road, stopping only once.

This time, a "rafter" of Wild Turkeys jumped out from an unharvested field of corn - right in front of my car.  They were too close for photos, so I just sat and enjoyed the view.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Surrogates - the Movie

Tom and I decided to take in a movie on Saturday.  I needed a Bruce Willis "fix" and a excuse to spend the day in Eau Claire.  Our agenda started with a drive up-river on Rustic Road 107, an hour or so with Willis in his new flick "Surrogates," grocery shopping and then another ride on our favorite Rustic Road.

After Friday's drenching rain, we expected a strong fallout of migratory songbirds.  We were not disappointed.

There were warblers everywhere - redstarts, palm warblers and yellow-rumps.  Phoebes lined up on telephone wires with sharp-tailed sparrows, bluebirds and chipping sparrows.   No shorebirds and ducks.  Lots of Cedar Waxwings gorging themselves on wild grapes.

I heard a Pileated Woodpecker calling off in the distance.  How would he respond to the BirdJam version of his song, broadcast through the Prius' JBL radio speakers?   I queued the file and played it once.  The woodpecker flew out of the woods and perched on the trunk a tree right next to my car window!

But the biggest bird surprise turned out to be the first sighting this season (for us) of White-throated Sparrows (singing their familiar Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody song) and Dark-eyed Juncos.  Autumn has arrived.

As the morning warmed up, mosquitoes started to plague us.   We gave up on the birding and headed to the Carmike Theater at the mall.

I didn't know what to expect from "Surrogates," other than Bruce Willis in another "save the world" role.  Not a great film, but a very interesting and timely premise:  humans who never leave the comfort of their homes, live happy and "safe" lives vicariously through robot surrogates.  

Spoiler alert:  In the end, Willis destroys the idea that humans can be happy without ever going outdoors.

Humor alert:  the car chase.  Picture Bruce Willis chasing the bad guys in the vehicle of the future - a 2010 Prius!  Hear the tires screeching?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The First 30 days

We've had the car for a month now.  We've driven up hill and down dale.  Fast and slow.  On interstates and dirt roads.   In urban and rural traffic.

Here's our preliminary review:

1.   Mileage:  Getting 51 mpg does not require much thought or effort.   When I watch those computer displays and don't rest my foot on the accelerator pedal, we get 60-65 mpg.   When we're birding (ie, driving very slowly), getting more than 75mgp is not unusual.  GREAT!

2.  Battery:  Forget the EV (all electric) mode.  Don't touch that button.  The ability to go a half mile using only the battery really doesn't amount to much.  Don't get me wrong:  getting 60 mpg is great.  But the battery-gas engine synergy works best when you drive from point A to point B.  Driving slowly (ie., while bird watching) and stopping alot gets great mileage, but it also drains the battery .  Every time we spend a couple of hours on Rustic Road #107, the gas engine has to kick on - when we least expect it - automatically.  It's noisy and jarring.  I have to turn the car off to stop it.   

2.  Acceleration:  I haven't had a problem with on-ramps and the passing lane.   The few times I've put the pedal to the metal, the Prius has not let me down.  It automatically kicks into the "power" mode.   GREAT!

3.  Interior Design (back of the car):  There's plenty of room in the trunk and back passenger seats.  The seats fold down, so there's room to carry stuff.  There's a "secret" compartment under the rubber mats in the rear cargo area and a removable cargo cover.  One caveat:   Be careful not to block the battery vents when you pile stuff in the back seats.  I love the rubber (not plastic) floor mats.

4.  Interior color & Seats (front):   Our car came with a "misty gray" interior.  If we had a choice, I would have picked the darker colors (bisque or dark gray).  The whitish interior is quick to show dirt, fingerprints and shoe scuffs.  The front seats are very comfortable.  We haven't had a reason to turn the seat heater on yet.  

5.  Center console:  Beyond providing two cup holders in the center console and "bottle" holders in the front doors, storage in the front is limited.  I want a place for my maps, coins for the tolls (they fly out of the little pocket by the window levers) and a tour book?  It's an awkward twist for me to access the console storage compartment between the seats.   And what can you stow in the skinny "space" under the shift module?   

6.  Shift Lever:  It's not complicated - but I grew up with the "H" gear shift configuration - where reverse is bottom right.  The back-up beeper helps me remember that "reverse" is left and up.

7.  Back-up Beeper:  The Prius "starts" in the electric mode.  It's so quiet people (and wildlife) don't hear you.  So I understand the safety rationale for the car to "beep" when you back-up in a crowded shopping center parking lot.  But when you're watching wildlife, it's like "Beep Beep the roadrunner" (as in the Wylie Coyote cartoons) screaming "outta my way."

8.  Cleaning:  After our trip out west, the car was covered with dead insects.  It was summer, no big surprise.  I figured there'd be some bug carcasses on the radiator too.  So I popped the hood and checked it out.  The radiator was covered.  Problem was, I couldn't access the radiator to remove the exoskeletons.  That wouldn't have bothered me, but ever since I had to replace the radiator in my Honda CRV, I pay close attention to radiator hygiene.   I'm sure it's nothing to worry about, but I do.

9.  The Blind Spot:   I don't get the same kind of "view" through the back window as I get with my CRV.   Removing the back head rests helps.  And I am careful to take a second look before I back out of a parking space.

10.  Windshield Wipers:  The front wipers and squirter work fine.  I don't "get" what the engineers were thinking with the rear wiper.

and one more thing:

11.  Ground Clearance:   There is very little ground clearance - as in 6-inches or less.  So be very careful when you encounter road construction, uneven road surfaces and potholes.  The sickening sound of the scrape...

Over-all rating so far:  Great! with just a few caveats.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Bullsnake: The Big Stick in the Road

After our week-long road trip, we returned home to an empty refrigerator.  It was time for a grocery run to the big city:  Eau Claire. 

If we stick to the main highway (State Road 84),  it's about an hour drive.  But ever since we discovered Rustic Road #107 through Meridean, the ride can take a couple of hours or more, especially during migration.  We just never know what we're going to see.

We left Nelson around 11am.  We didn't see much on the ride east through the riparian woods and prairies along the Chippewa River.  It was hot and the birds were taking their mid-day siesta.

It's been a relatively rain-less summer and the water levels in the ponds and creeks along the Chippewa are way down. It was a very dusty drive.  The corn is stunted and dry.  Leaves are withered and yellow.

We didn't see much on the ride back to Nelson - until around 6pm, when I spotted a big stick in the road ahead near a stretch of prairie grasses.   A shovel or limb must have fallen out of a pickup.

Then it moved!   It's a SNAKE!  A big one.

I pulled the car to the side of the road, grabbed my little SONY Cyber-shot and ran up to it.

I'm not a snake "person," but I know enough to check out the eyes first.  This one had round eyes.  Non-venomous.  Safe. 

But I didn't have to fight the urge to grab it for a closer look.  Unless someone else is holding it and passes it over to me, I'm a very reluctant snake handler.

I blame my wicked brother, Martin.  Back when we were kids playing in the garden, he tossed a garter snake at me.  I caught it.  It bit me, then for good measure, it defecated on me. 

To this day, even though I "know" better, I don't go out of my way to pick up a snake.  I've just never had a mentor and the motivation to get over it.

I will, however, pick up a bat - even though I've been bitten many times.  (Please don't pick up a bat unless you have training and the pre-exposure shots).  The more you know about a critter, the less you fear it.   Right?

Back to the snake, about which I don't know much.

Looks like a bullsnake.  As I got close enough to get a photo, it immediately did what most snakes do when confronted by a human:  it slithered off... back into the prairie.

When I got home, I "googled" bull snake, and discovered that it's a species of interest to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.  They have a page for reporting bullsnake sightings.  I did my duty and reported it. 

Friday, September 4, 2009

Badlands Redux

I wanted one more chance to catch the morning light in the Badlands.  So we took the southern route back to Wisconsin via I-90. 

We left the Quality Inn in Spearfish, SD, before dawn and pulled up to the Pinnacles entrance to the park around 8am.  The Ranger inside the booth had his back to us.  After a few minutes, he turned and said: "Oh, I'm so sorry.  I didn't hear you pull up.  I hope you weren't sitting there too long."  Then he paused and leaned out of the booth to give our car the once-over.  "You have one of those quiet cars.  How do you like it?"

"We love it.  It's great for creeping up on wildlife," I said.

Well, today's your lucky day, he said.   There's a herd of Bighorn Sheep just up the road on the right.  We drove slowly, but didn't see them.  Then we doubled back and looked to the west.

At first we thought the white patooties in the grasses were pronghorn.  Nope.  They were sheep - but too far away for my telephoto lens.  I was surprised to see bighorn sheep in the Badlands.  I associate them with the desert and Rocky Mountains, not America's prairies.  (According to the NPS website, the Badlands sub-species went extinct due to over-hunting back in the 1920s.  Four decades later, the federal agency started a translocation program.)

We had plenty of time, so we pulled off the road and watched, and waited.  After an hour or so, the Pinnacles herd turned around and headed towards us - giving us a close-to-the-car photo opportunity. 

The sheep ignored us and the big lens sticking out of the Prius window. 

By this time, the sun was high in the sky and the light was getting harsh.  I wanted to see the black-tailed prairie dogs one more time.

We headed west on Sage Creek Road to check out the Roberts prairie dog town.  We knew we'd arrived when we saw the craters and the bison grazing along the horizon.


from the Journal of the Lewis and Clark Expedition
September 1804:  they "discovered a Village of an animal the french Call the Prairie Dog" 

Black-tailed Prairie Dog
Cynomys ludovicianus 

Cyno = dog
mys = mouse
ludovicianus = of Louisiana


Thursday, September 3, 2009

Greycliff Prairie Dog Town State Park

Prairie Dogs at dusk!

We couldn't resist the promise of the Greycliff Prairie Dog Town State Park exit sign on Interstate-90 just west of Billings.  I envisioned a state-of-the-art "live" prairie dog town exhibit, along with a visitor center with sophisticated displays and a gift shop crammed with plush toys.

Not here.

The only evidence of human presence (aside from Tom and me) in this tiny park was minimal:  a kiosk with a park map and rules, a dirt driveway, a couple of picnic tables by a parking area and 3 metal "interpretive" signs.

The fenced area (and beyond) was dotted with craters. Prairie dogs were all over the place.  I had to be careful not to hit one with my car.

The behavior of these little rodents, however, was very different from the doggies at the Badlands.  They seemed very leery of our car, and us - when we got out to read the metal signs.   

It was an odd and jarring experience, seeing this "keystone" prairie species, relegated to a 98-acre fenced "pen" adjacent to a noisy interstate highway, with cars and trucks zooming by in the background.

As we got back on the interstate with the sun setting in the west, we couldn't help but notice several prairie dogs, sitting upright on the shoulder of the highway - outside the park "boundary."  Yikes.  How many would be (or had been) hit by cars? 

I got an inkling the next day, when I met with the Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks employees who managed this park.

When I told them I'd stopped at Greycliff, they laughed, and shook their heads.  "Out here, you know, they're varmits."  

"One of our staff was out at the park the other day and actually ran over one with his car."

Montana State Parks:  Real Montana.  Real Close.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Another Day in Yellowstone

Our goal for our last day in Yellowstone:   drive the northern half of the Park, then head to Billings.

We started early - 6am - and were rewarded with an elk right next to the road as we left Grant Village.   Further down the road, we spotted a mule deer doe with her fawn.
While I appreciate the geological wonders of Yellowstone, I'm more than a tad nervous when I think about being in a 30x45 mile volcanic caldera.   So when I pulled into a parking lot at the Mud Volcano Trail, I planned to stretch my legs - not go on a hike.   The "rotten egg" smell hit us as soon as we opened the car doors.  Tom, the chemist, said:  hydrogen sulfide.  But it was the groan of the Dragon's Mouth Spring that pulled us up the trail to Dragon's Mount Spring.
Native Americans described it as "snorts of an angry bull bison."   We stopped to watch the steam and listen for birds (Yellow-rumped warblers, Chipping Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos).
But it was the manic antics of a Uinta Chipmunk, darting back and forth that captured our attention.   We watched, but we couldn't figure out what the little guy found so irresistible that he was willing to dodge the scalding shower of the Dragon's breath.
Then it was on to Hayden Valley and another traffic jam.

I saw bison, then a "mob" of ravens off to the east.  At first glance, it looked like they were following a herd of mule deer.  Nope.  It was a pack of wolves!  Before we knew it, they were gone.

Later that afternoon, we got much closer looks at two lone coyotes, hunting along the road in Lamar Valley.   More bison.

When we arrived at Mammoth, the northeastern corner of Yellowstone, we were puzzled by the new signs everywhere.  ELK ARE DANGEROUS - NOT NOT APPROACH.

We didn't have to drive very far before we discovered what was behind the signs.

Remember - it is illegal to get within 100 yards of bears - or 25 yards of other wildlife

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Old Faithful and Road Construction

The morning sky was dark and the clouds were heavy with rain.  What can you do when it rains at America's first National Park?  Go see the geysers.

We headed over to check out Old Faithful.  We got a heavy dose of people, congestion and construction.  It was like going to the mall the day after Thanksgiving.

The place was mobbed.   Tour buses unloading at the Yellowstone Lodge.   People everywhere.

Old Faithful was scheduled to do erupt at 11am.  We had some time to kill, so I went looking for the visitor center.   I wanted a bird checklist.   I'd picked up one for each of the parks we'd visited - the Badlands, Custer State Park and Jewel Cave.  Nothing fancy - just a list of birds in scientific order.  Cost:  free.

I found the Visitor Center in a temporary trailer nearby.  (The new "green" visitor center is under construction.)  I went inside and asked.    The Yellowstone Association store employee pointed to the book shelf and said - it's over there.   The list of birds, on a 2-sided 11x17 piece of paper.  Cost: $1.50 plus tax.  Okay fine.

Outside, Old Faithful started steaming.  I hurried back to find Tom, who was sitting on the porch of the Lodge nursing a hot chocolate.  We were in awe of the hundreds of people standing in the rain, watching - and concerned about what the traffic would be like when it was over.

We timed it just right.

What to do next?  The National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson.  A great rainy day decision.


Four hours later, after way more than the "30-minute construction delay" we were warned about back in Yellowstone,  we arrived at the museum and headed to the cafe, relieved to see the "open" sign.  We were starving.

As I walked up to the counter, the cafe manager said:   "By my watch, it's 3:01.  Kitchen closed at 3pm.  You want lunch?  You'll have to go into town."

I explained what we'd been through.  The young manager said:  rules are rules.  Then he walked away.

So did we.