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 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?


Eve said...

I knew I would love your post Debi! That top shot is top notch! And your Shrike photo is to die for! That beautiful little hawk is an American Kestrel. You'll become a professional birder in no time if you stick with it! I promise! Reading your post just brought a smile to my face and will last until our next adventure. I'm ready....let's GO!!

Daniel Spurgeon said...

Very nice, Debi. I can almost feel the cold through the photos! Yes, the birds were probably snuggled up nice and cozy somewhere. I'm glad that you were able to get a photo of the Loggerhead Shrike. It looks as if he is ready to impale something onto the barbwire.

Daniel Spurgeon said...

I also see that you added "Worrisome Heart" by Melody Gardot to your playlist. I "discovered" her through iTunes featuring her music. I really like her music. You might also be interested in the following music/video by the Avett Brothers from North Carolina. To me, it is very poignant.

Gaelyn said...

What a fun freezing day semi bird watching. I'd have been too cold to hold the camera still.

The Garden Ms. S said...

That looks like so much fun, even if it is cold! Great photos of the birds.

Here is blog about birding I found recently that you might enjoy:


jodi (bloomingwriter) said...

Brrr! I got cold just reading this post, but it was fun (and obviously fun for you, cold or no cold.) Amazing gear some of these people tote around with them!

Lythrum said...

You're a better woman than me, I've been ducking outside and getting back in as soon as possible. :) Glad you had fun!

Bo Mackison said...

Oh this looks like so much fun! Good on you for braving the weather for such great adventure. I join you in taking a long look at that telephoto - holy smokes! A few bucks there, huh? :-)

We were driving along the highway last weekend, saw a Bald Eagle grandly perched in a tree on the side of the road. I usually have to work a lot harder for that kind of treat. The eagles will be swarming the Wisconsin River in a week or two. Should be fun viewing.

Now, about THAT lens...

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a spectacular trip. I always get excited too when I get to see a shrike up close and personal too. It looks like you have become a fledgling birder your self. Happy birding Always...
Its great to always keep our eyes wide open for whatever may pop up into our personal view.

inadvertent farmer said...'re a geek and I'm a hick, perfect pair!

LOVE that shot on the post of the fence. Kim

Julie Magers Soulen said...

I love birding too. Wonderful post!

Julie Magers Soulen Photography
Blog of Note

Janean said...

from someone who is just discovering photography on a base level, you are inspiring!!!!

Anonymous said...

Oh how fun, Debi, maybe more so from the warmth of the lazyboy, but I admire your going along for the fun of it. Your shots are great, big lens guy must be envious of your enthusiasm at least. What a lens! The shot of the birders was delightful. I would love to do that sort of thing, but only in warmer temps. A fair weather feather watcher. :-)


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