Tuesday, January 26, 2010


As a child, riding in the back seat meant watching the world go by. For me it was a time of great imaginings. Astride my palomino we galloped alongside the roadway up hills and down valleys, jumped over fences and waded through creeks. With each new vista a new storyline was added to the forever-changing plot. By the time we reached our destination my horse and I had been in rodeos and won the prize, fought battles and came home weary, or simply had a nice gallop in the meadows.

To this day every roadside vista tells me a story. The Toyota is my palomino and there's no galloping to be had with it but we enjoy the occasional, safe, off-road adventure together.

The vista above provided a brief respite along a North Alabama Birding Trail. The single lane gravel trail became a causeway with a lovely little creek on either side. Opening the windows I turned off the car's engine to shoot photos through the driver's side window. In the quiet I slowly began hearing a multitude of tiny birds in the brush and some creatures splashing quietly in the distance. They would not show themselves to me so I imagined tiny brown birds clinging precariously onto swaying reeds, chattering to each other nervously waiting for me to leave. Surely the splashing sounds were little fishes scuttling back and forth through the grasses, splashing through the shallows, avoiding the birds. Small insects were buzzing and singing out of sight. It was a world I could hear vividly but not see with my eyes. However, in my mind's eye it was there and it was beautiful.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Just Gulls

Pretty gulls in a row

It's raining, raining, raining here. Our backyard looks like a swamp. Baylee is hiding in a closet, refusing to go outside. It's been raining for a long time. Nature's overnight symphony was filled with oboes and bass drums and tubas and gongs crashing together in succession with a fabulous light show. Baylee was not impressed.

Looking through old photos this morning I found these of gulls taken during a recent drive-about. These guys were in a sheltered slew at Joe Wheeler State Park. It was a cloudy day, the lake was still and quiet and the gulls took advantage of a shallow point well out into the water to preen and rest. Gulls have never truly been my interest. They're "just gulls" when I look out over the water and watch them swirling above the water like snowflakes.

However, looking at this underexposed shot - which I am liking more and more for its contrast - I make out lovely feathers, marks on their bills and serene expressions.

The beautiful feathers

These gulls clearly are not mindful of my opinions. The word "just" has no meaning for them. Fish are abundant, shelter is good and they have lots of company in the way of Canada Geese and Great Blue Herons and even more gulls who fly in after taking their fill of fishes from the lake. This is a great spot for migrating birds. The western side of Alabama is part of the Mississippi Flyway. These "snowbirds" come for winter and leave in the spring, heading back to wherever they came from. Perhaps I need to get to know them better.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Warmth and Friendship

Great Blue Heron stands in front of a curtain of local wetland grasses

Last week I receive an e-mail with the subject line "I've gotta get outta here!" or something to that effect. My Sunny Side Up pal, Eve, was going stir-crazy. We agreed to meet Tuesday so I packed up my kit, loaded up my iCar and headed East. Eve's new house is only 30 minutes from mine, and it's a stunningly beautiful drive through hills and past waterways, up a small mountain with views of paradise. Our plan was to meet for bird watching and photographing, our ultimate goal being Lake Guntersville State Park in search of bald eagles.

After touring Eve's house and substantial (and beautiful!) grounds we piled into her car and headed down the mountain toward water. First, we pulled off onto a parking lot area next to Lake Guntersville. There we saw gulls and coots in abundance as well as several great blue herons. We both chased them like photographers from National Geographic, trying to get interesting shots of these common birds. Well, okay...we weren't quite that dogmatic in our pursuits but sure had fun!

A lone gull claims this post way out in the shallow waterway

We spied this plant growing on the water's edge. Cotton? Can anyone ID this plant?

We fixated on a single heron perching on Guntersville's "Bridge to Nowhere." Clearly, we couldn't get to him and he never felt threatened. I love this shot with the coot coming through the center just like a boat through a drawbridge. Cute coot!

Another angle

As much as we enjoy herons, coots and gulls we were after eagles after all, so Eve suggested we take in a few funky shops and one antique mall before heading up the mountain. It was there that we found birds galore...! Not quite eagles, but we sure had fun...and we spent a little money!

Birds on top of birds

Birds on canvas, both a Robin...

...and a bird of blue

The next shop we went to was an amazing cottage filled with all manner of funky things that I fell in love with, AND ...I spied THIS on a shelf! Anyone recognize this cute business card? With that cute, precious pup? This is EVE's business card proudly displayed beside baskets of her cards that she sells! Yay! How inspiring! Her phone number was smudged out out of respect for her privacy BUT if you're interested in her cards contact her via her blog, Sunny Side Up.

A basket of Eve's cards gently glows as sunshine from a nearby window bathes it in light

Kala's Cottage is the name of the store. She carries amazing products, such as these locally-made vinegars of all variety. I'm a vinegar NUT and was tempted...sorely tempted!

After strolling through two funky shops and one huge, rambling antique mall Eve and I realized that it was already early afternoon and it was too late for eagles. That's okay - we'll just have lunch instead! She suggested The Rock House and it was perfect, with some of the best chili I've ever had. This is the ONLY photo I have of Eve...and she's out of focus (!), which is PERFECT! This shows just how "out of focus" our day together became. Originally, we were seeking eagles but instead we ended up simply spending time together laughing and exploring and chatting and just Being.

Before heading home I sat at Eve's comfortable kitchen table in her lovely home sharing time with Eve and her mom over a glass of wine. Our birdie bounty was lovingly caressed and handled and adored; we were extremely pleased with our day. Morgan, Eve's precious daughter, shared tales from school. We four gals talked like we'd known each other forever. Eve and I both thought it funny that we didn't even think to photograph each other and "plan" our blog posts. The day happened just as it was supposed to. It was Perfection.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mosses and Lichens

The forest floor

Sunday was a gray day, lovingly wrapped in low hanging clouds, serenaded by spits and spats and pittering and pattering of soft drizzling showers. Slowly driving through the State Park along curvy roadways the carpeting of mosses seems illuminated from beneath the earth, much like the glowing forest in Avatar, in amazing shades of green, blue and purple. I find a safe place to pull over to explore and attempt to capture the magic.

Never having researched mosses and lichens I cannot describe any varieties seen here, but to me that isn't quite the point. Textures and colors create an Earth Painting of a sort when shot at close-up range. The new macro lens is quite the challenge and I've lots of learning to do, but viewing them at home on a large screen I found things I didn't see while there.

Glowing moss caresses a rock

What struck me upon looking at the photos later was some black gooey stuff that was prevalent. While there, I was only seeing the glowing colors, but I think the shiny black substance is what made some of the colors "pop." I could sure use a Botanist's opinion.

Tree lichens were like the webbed feet of futuristic waterfowl clinging to Eastern Red Cedars, their deep russet bark set off the light green and blue colors.

This globule of lichens fascinated me most. I see it in the topmost photo on the forest floor, but most prevalently clinging to the sides of Cedars. Fine black hairs rim the edges, it looks like an alien needing a shave.

A macro lens is throwing challenges my way, and is enabling me to get lost in another view of Nature. Any macro photographers out there who can give me good advice? Most of my shots are blurry. Depth of field is a huge issue. I need a tiny tripod. As it is I tuck my elbows in and stop breathing to shoot, but what I get now is just luck.

Friday, January 15, 2010

American White Pelicans

American White Pelicans on Elk River
(Far, far, far away from me)

The newspaper said in big letters "American White Pelicans sighted on Elk River!" So where does a birder go but to Elk River! Upon arriving I detect a problem - all the properties along this narrow band of river is private with No Trespassing signs clearly visible on docks and grasslands. Far in the distance, blinding white in the sunshine, are tiny white dots floating along the currents. The zoom lens proves them to be pelicans but there's no way to get closer. I drive along crookneck lanes, bobbing and weaving through potholes and tree limbs but there was no public access anywhere. The zoomed and cropped photo will have to suffice for today. Then, it snowed and I was house-bound for a bit. Me and the Yaris are not safe in snow - trust me.

After the roads were cleared up - a day or two - I went out to the dam on a whim. Surely, if they're on the Elk they'll be on Wilson Lake. Yes, yes, yes! Again, very far away but hope springs eternal. Patience may win the day. This site is part of the North Alabama Birding Trail. There is ample parking and public access and I am happy. So I go out and shoot some in the frigid wind chill but no pelican flies close for an hour or more. Again with the freezing fingers. Again with the tearing eyes and hair whipping about my face. Again with the herons and cormorants and gulls and coots.

Finally, a flock of seagulls (...that phrase takes me back) finds a school of bait fish and begin a feeding frenzy close to shore. A lone male American White Pelican spots the action and takes advantage. Finally. Finally.

He swoops and circles.

He banks and dances in the winds.

His wingspan is magnificent.

His calm demeanor shows he means business.

He turns for the landing.

His reflection is beautiful in these boiling waters beneath the dam.

Perfect landing.

Success, both him and me.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Heron Love

A narrow roadway crosses a span of water flanked by rocks and boulders and trees and stumps. The waterway is also narrow. Fed by a stream, the waterway gradually widens before pouring into the Tennessee River. Here, birds are protected, fishes are plentiful in the shallows and this juvenile great blue heron takes advantage. If you click on the first photo to enlarge it you can make out a black feather in its beak, for what purpose I can only imagine.

The camera loves the subject but the heron grows nervous and soon flies off seeking privacy.

The Heron

The heron stands in water where the swamp
Has deepened to the blackness of a pool,
Or balances with one leg on a hump
Of marsh grass heaped above a musk-rat hole.

He walks the shallow with an antic grace.
The great feet break the ridges of the sand,
The long eye notes the minnow's hiding place.
His beak is quicker than a human hand.

He jerks a frog across his bony lip,
Then points his heavy bill above the wood.
The wide wings flap but once to lift him up.
A single ripple starts from where he stood.

--Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Ice Udders

Wilson Lake

WARNING: This post will make you feel cold. Brew some hot tea and wrap up good before reading. While visiting the lake during the frigid weather my mom and I made time for some road trips. The snowfall where we were was much lighter than the eastern portion of the state where Eve lives so we were able to get out for odd road trip. Our last road trip was to the dam in search of pelicans.

What we found was an alien land, it's edges dripping with ice formations. The chop and splash of Wilson lake had covered everything alongside the Tennessee River. Initial coatings from relentless waves eventually created udders of ice reaching downward toward the steel blue, roiling waters.

When I say "we" I mean me and my camera for mom was all too happy staying inside the car with the heater going. Which is exactly where she needed to be, having had some surgical procedures recently. The goal was to get her out of the house so she could see something besides 4 walls and a television set. Birding expeditions always rock, and the dam is normally the perfect spot. While there we met a gentleman about her age who had seen pelicans AND the recent Operation Migration stop and flyover of Whooping Cranes! Now THAT'S a GOAL for me!

But I digress. While I watched all manner of waterfowl circling and calling in the brisk breeze, diving down into the boiling water to catch dinner I walked closer to the edge and looked down at the shoreline. You are seeing what I saw, or a small portion of it anyway.

The wind chill was fierce and I didn't have gloves on but I stayed until my fingers turned blood red and painful. There was so much beauty in these formations. Nature is the premiere artist and forever optimist. We always hear "take lemons and make lemonade" and that saying applies here as well. Except it could be "take freezing temperatures, strong winds and icy waters and make ice sculptures!" Such beauty is just beyond the edge - we just have to look for it.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Frosted Garden

Possumhaw Holly
Ilex decidua

Watching snowfall from the front porch of my mom's lake house, I was struck mute by the sheer beauty of my possumhaw hollies across the street. The bright red ilex decidua was heavily laden with plump, red berries. Fluffed up Mockingbirds would alight within its drooping branches, pick off a berry and fly off into the heavy flurries. Snowfall is rare here, and one of such beauty - sans ice - beckons this Southerner outdoors and across the street, to her home, her yard, to witness this miraculous dusting and record it for all time.

Virginia Sweetspire
Itea virginica
Seed pods leftover from spring still adorn the mass planting of Virginia Sweetspires that ramble along the foundation of our home. Such sweet magic when I looked at them and the the hollies, topped with snow, through my new macro lens. The snowfall didn't consist of pretty little rounded circles of ice but instead sharp shards like broken glass.

Byer's Golden Possumhaw Holly
Ilex decidua
The golden possumhaw holly was not to be outdone by its red relative. The golden berries and slate gray leaves dusted with icy crystals is nearly mouth-wateringly beautiful.

Roads were closed for a spell, therefore road trips were infrequent. Did I see white pelicans?

...stay tuned...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Flying Squirrels

Southern Flying Squirrel
(I took this photo)

Our good friends Mike and Cathy woke at 3am this past November to frantic scratching and scrambling sounds in their walls, right behind their heads. They're back. Teeny tiny big-eyed flying squirrels live in the woods that surround their home and on the mountain that clambers up behind them. Occasionally, these little nocturnal cuties get in their attic and into their walls. Seeking warmth? Perhaps a little companionship? Not being a flying squirrel expert and never having seen one personally, until now of course, I head to the World Wide Web. There's a website just about...you guessed it...flying squirrels! Link through and amuse yourself with the data and high cute factor should you so choose this wintry day. The photos of baby flying squirrels are so cute! (...there's that word again..."cute.")

Cathy calls the next morning to tell me about their long night rescuing these wee furry beasties, telling me they plan to release them elsewhere in the forest. I couldn't go along so Mike drove them by for me to see. Lots of "awwww!" and "ohhhh!" and "how cute!!!!" drifted along the breezes of our driveway as the family gathered to see them.

Mike sent me the release photos later. He said they are so fast it was hard to release them and then get a decent picture but he forwarded a few of the best to me to share with my blogging buddies.

He told me this guy hung around a little and chattered at him from above. He would circle around the tree trying to get a better photo but the squirrel would circle around as well. It was a Circle Game for which the squirrel was much better adapted.

Mike bade his farewells to these adorable rodents and trudged home.....only to implement Operation Flying Squirrel Rescue several more times before the winter cold set in. He's gotta find and fix that hole they've discovered before spring! All release photos compliments of my friend, Mike Kearney.

I'll be at the lake today through Sunday and may not be able to post in the interim. The Weather Service is predicting SNOW tonight and tomorrow and us Southerners do NOT "do" snow. That means hot toddies with my mom as we catch up, some movie watching and naturally some vino. The new Timberlands are packed so who knows? Maybe a road trip will ensue and I'll actually see the white pelicans this time!!! My buddy Carroll said the Cormorant migration went through yesterday on Wheeler Lake. If you've ever witnessed it you'll never forget it. For HOURS long v-lines of cormorants skim above the waves from the west, heading eastward for some reason. The black swath of bird bodies flying quickly and with such purpose is an amazing sight. Dang it - I missed it this year.

I'll see you guys on the flip side.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Thinking Warm Thoughts

Costa Maya

Gaelyn's (GeoGypsy) photos of her trip to Cozumel gave me the idea to do likewise. I've been wondering what to post since I'm NOT going outside to take more photos for a bit - still thawing out from the birrrrrrrrrrding expedition. Brrrrrrr!!!

Hubby and I took a cruise with a bunch of his friends from NASA back in November 2004. The Port of Mobile just opened and had good rates for cruises. I'd never been on a cruise before, wasn't sure I would even like it, plus I get motion sickness and ships are great at rockin' and rollin' all the time, BUT I'm up for adventure. Armed with motion sickness pills AND the patch I signed up. Gambling isn't my thing but watching the ocean (Gulf of Mexico, really) with a beer in my hand is high on my list of Fun Things To Do! These photos are taken with our Sony Cybershot 5.0 megapixel camera, but they're not too grainy to share.

There were storms out on the Gulf every night, which made meal times interesting. One night we all just went to bed because you couldn't walk and it was unsafe to be outside. The pills and patch worked great, I must say. Our first port was Costa Maya, a charming new port on the Carnival circuit. The best part was the active dig and Mayan ruins we toured. AND our tour guide gave us all beer when we loaded back onto the bus! Now we're talkin'!

Ship with flags in Cozumel's harbor

Cozumel was very touristy - not my thing either - but I enjoyed seeing the various colorful ships out in the harbor and looking through the shops.

Happy Feet!

We really enjoyed lounging on the deck drinking our beers as our ship left Cozumel, bound for Mobile. The sun was out, the sky was blue, the water was beautiful and my toes were happy!

Spectacular Sunset over the Gulf of Mexico

An amazing sunset was the finest finishing touch to a fun, fun, fun trip with friends! I hope these photos helped warm you guys as much as the memories have warmed my heart!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Birdwatching Expedition

"Hawk Farm" close to Guntersville Dam

Tree (me) and Sun (Eve of Sunny Side Up) and our daughters met yesterday along the frigid banks of the Tennessee River at Guntersville Dam to join an outing of avid bird geeks with the North Alabama Birdwatching Society. We were in search of raptors - hawks, bald eagles, golden eagles, harriers, kestrels, falcons and any bird that crossed paths with us, our binoculars and cameras. The day was absolutely hellish, with temps in the 20's and a fierce wind chill. This is NOT polite Southern weather for birdwatching, but we bravely donned boots and gloves, hoods and hats, thick jackets and woolen socks and went for broke.

The river was boiling with white caps and covered in a fine, blue mist. Gulls swooped and fed, and the odd heron would fly by, but eagles were elsewhere. There was a harrier (I think) (only because someone there suggested it) waaaaaaay off in the distance hovering high before diving to the earth to catch some wee beast for breakfast. Our expedition leader decided that frostbite was imminent and we should head to Hawk Farm. (not the farm's real name, but it is known for its vast population of red tailed hawks) Our leader had been given permission for our group of 20 (give or take) birders to observe fields from one particular area, so off we went.

A convoy of vehicles entered the narrow road and parked next to a cattle pen of some sort. It was a very interesting structure. My husband told me upon seeing the above photo that it is a pen for loading cattle into a vehicle. They walk up this ramp, above, through the chute and onto the truck.

A gate at the cattle pen.

Well, this is fun. Wide open fields of chopped down crops stretch all around us. We are freezing. There are few birds. Any hawk sighting is fleeting and fast, and my photos are blurry and bad. However, those moments of excitement would get our blood rushing back into our frost-bitten fingers and we would rejoice. The BEST photos I got that day are of the birders themselves.

We are talking some serious bird-spotting scopes and binoculars here.

Eve and I were both lusting after this lens, a 500mm zoom. You should see his Shrike picture.

This is basically what we did for an hour, give or take. Stand and look, squinting into the sunshine, looking for hawks. Or anything that flew. Even crows were on our radar. A heron would provide minutes of amusement, as would the ubiquitous bluebirds. We saw some sapsuckers, a downey or hairy woodpecker, heard warblers and towhees, maybe even a cedar waxwing, saw cardinals and sparrows and, of course, crows. I was completely out of my league with these folks, btw. These guys have been birding for decades. One of the younger members was excellent at bird calls and would tell us what he was hearing while we searched, mostly in vane, for the source. I'm the sort of birder who enjoys the experience and doesn't keep a bird log, nor do I have a Life Bird list. My bird watching is a haphazard, all-in-the-name-of-fun experience. When it happens, it's magic!

The landscape here was beautiful. Ringed by blue, misty mountains these golden fields and bare trees were something out of a nature magazine. Such beauty, such peace...except for the sound of rifles off in the distant hunting range, which is why the farm owner limited our birdwatching area.

Oh, there's a hawk! In a tree! Almost sorta close by! This is cropped and I don't know what kind it is. If you enlarge the picture you'll see the tail has a circle of reddish orange, but it doesn't look like the normal red tailed hawk tail to me. Eve? Eve...now, Eve is a certified, amazing birdwatching gal. She knows her birds!

I DID get to see a Shrike, which is a bird I've always wanted to see ever since Daniel Spurgeon of Nature at Close Range showed me a photo of one in our very own community on Wheeler Lake. The big lens guy got a GREAT shot, but I'm just as happy with mine....'cause it's mine!

At the end our fearless....and freezing....leader gathered her birdwatching chicks around her and said she was calling it a day. She apologized for the lack of birds, though she'd been birding at this same locale before with amazing results. Hey, it's cold. The birds are snuggled in their nests watching the silly people in mucklucks far below them loosing limbs to frostbite. Birdwatching Societies cannot, of course, guarantee birding success. What we didn't see in actual birds was made up tenfold by meeting such wonderful, fun people and talking with them about our passions - birds. It was a fabulous day - I had a ball and will go again! (hopefully on a warmer day) Eve? You up for it again?


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