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The Train to Zagreb

Huge and modern Prague Train Station For the second time this trip, we caught a train. This time we headed for Zagreb in Croatia.  W...

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Return to South Florida

Swallow-tailed Kite: a familiar dot in the Florida sky
Today was the start of a week long - or short actually - south Florida Birding tour, led by master birder. While I've gone to many birding festivals, this is only my second professionally led birding guide tour, and frankly I ought to do this more often. So much less stress; no driving into ditches via GPS, no tracking down target species that don't want me to see them (What, me paranoid?). And the best reason for touring vs Claire-only birding, of all: the company of other birders. So here I am, with four others, fellow birders Steve & Marian and our talented, good humored leader Larry Manfredi. Yes. Life is good.

NE entrance Kiosks at Everglades NP
Today, day one, we visited Everglades National Park. I eagerly told anyone with ears, my last Everglades visit, was in 1998 and I've been itching, without the benefit of chiggers, to return.

Everglade Grasslands
Soon we were cruising along under the morning sky, along great, flat stretches of Everglades grassland. Parked on the road's edge, Larry clued us in to listen for Cape Sable Seaside Sparrows. Off in the distance, a couple of the birds sang their buzzy territorial tunes. Soon we angled for looks through spotting scopes, while I inwardly racked up a new species for my ever-growing-in-my-retirement life list.
Seaside Sparrow
Not my photo, nicked it on-line

We spent maybe a half hour on the road, dodging trucks hauling trailers that zoomed through at speeds one normally associates with the SS Enterprise. A side note, Larry pointed out fascinating road kill, a cottonmouth snake, the first close up view of one I've ever seen, dead or alive (I have a photo I am not posting, out of respect for both you and the dead).

The day's highlight for me was seeing two species I hunted for and didn't see on my earlier trips to south Florida. We were happily viewing warblers I don't see every day, or even every year, including a Prairie Warbler, a gorgeous Black-throated Blue, Black and White Warbler and American Redstarts.
Prairie Warbler
'Cuban' subspecies of Yellow Warbler
Larry told us the spot were were occasionally turns up a Mangrove Cuckoo. Sure enough, off in the distance one of the buffy bellied bird below showed up. Trundling over we all had satisfying, nay, indulging looks at the bird, that flew from spot to spot until it decided we'd been indulged enough, and it flew off. Yay! I honestly thought I'd never be lucky enough to see one of these birds - and I can only hope I'll catch myself saying that all week long.
Mangrove Cuckoo
Oh yeah, classic butt shot


Yes, before I knew it, I was admiring and shooting a zillion camera frames at my second, 'Never thought I'd be lucky enough to see one of these' bird of the day; a Black-whiskered Vireo. The bird that moved quickly through the tree, and I thought at first I would have to make due with lots and lots of  birdy-butt shots.


Thankfully, a quick camera review however reveled one, solitary almost-in-focus shot, of the greenish, stripy-faced vireo. Hurrah!

My lifer Black-whiskered Vireo
Nearby the Vireo was a tree full of Brown-headed Cowbirds, and among them, our guide pointed out a few Shiny Cowbirds, a Caribbean bird that in recent years started showing up in Florida. I saw my first ever when I first visited the Dry Tortugas, and was grateful to get some photos of the birds. My shot of the purple male is below. This particular species is problematic, as they lay eggs in the nests of other birds, a real problem as their annoying habit means some other birds - rarer birds - raise Shiny Cowbird chicks instead of their own. This is a foster care program bird conservationists can't get behind.
Pretty... Shiny... really shiny. The male Shiny Cowbird
A bit later we were at the Flamingo maria, which we were informed at one time held lots and lots of American Flamingos. The birds are little more difficult to find nowadays. As a nice, though scaly replacement, Larry took us over to a little waterway with a bridge and by its cement stairs, huddled in the darkness - no doubt awaiting Captain Hook, lay yet another critter I'd long ago given up the idea of getting to view - an American Crocodile. Holy crap - the thing was as magnificent as it was impressive, even with just the view of its head.
Check the choppers on that Croc!
Not too far away, were birds I see far more often, even at home in California - Ospreys. These particular Osprey were new parents. Two poofy chicks were visible from below in the huge pile of sticks, that were the Osprey's marina adjacent nest.

Parent Osprey naps while chicks watch the curious humans below
Spotted Sandpiper
While we lunched by the Flamingo Marina, a familiar & spotty little shore, its butt merrily bobbing as it marched along the dock.

In the afternoon we drove about, and I had the chance to try my hand at taking photos of several soaring Swallow-tailed Kites. The resulting photos I got have convinced me I need to go back to basics and put in some work on photographing birds that move quickly and make 'focusing' a pain-in-my-arse. GAK! Really, I need to do some work on my basic photography. I did get a few interesting picture anyway though.

Note the kite below is peering curiously at it's feet - you can see it has picked up a froggie from somewhere in the swamp, that is dangling from its talons.

Froggy is in trouble...
See what I mean? Froggy is getting swallowed for lunch
Mid afternoon we headed off along the Tamiami Trail, which is a state road that traverses from Tampa on Florida's west coast, to Miami in the east. I remember the trail from 1998 quite well as back then I'd stayed over night at a rather run down motel run by the Mikasuki tribe. My room was clean, but run down, with holes in the walls, raggedy linen and I could not have cared less. Why? Because when I looked out the window, to the other side of the highway, I spotted a male Snail Kite running scrafts across the swamp. Jackpot! Now, more than a decade later, the highway seems much changed in spots, and alas - the Mikasuki motel is no more.  We stopped along the highway to check out the swamp and although we found an alligator and speedboats, we couldn't find a Snail Kite - yet!  In the photo below you can see one of the ubiquitous thatched roofs, which are common in south Florida. The thatching, made from palm was how the Seminole and Mikasuki kept a roof over their noggins.
Typical thatching job at a swamp picnic site 
We stopped at another Mikasuki landmark, locally famous for its speed boats and touristy gift shop, restaurant and the like. We found dozens of Common Grackles everywhere and one fun surprise - a Purple Gallinule with adorable little black, poof-ball chicks with colorful mini-puffin bills.

The Purple Gallinules were well used to people being about, so they were quite close to the deck & walkway where people happily watched the puff-balls toddling about and the adult bird preening and tending to the babies.

Attending Yoga Class with Mom
Can scarcely believe I got to see these adorable chicks
Air boats taking off on a swamp tours at the Tribal park
Our tour of the Everglades complete, and me, all happy with four lifers, we headed back to our motel. As Larry steered us through Homestead, a small flock of birds shot past overhead. "Monk Parakeets", he said. I said I hoped to see some this week, and soon we pulled up to a little spot Larry knew of. Up high were piles of sticks that amounted to a 'nest' for the pesky little parrots. I say 'pesky' as I remember them being a prime pest species back in my days as a weed & vertebrate biologist.

Yikes! Can only imagine how long it took for such tiny birds
 to drag all those sticks to construct such a massive nest?

Feral Monk Parakeet entering its nest
These cheeky little birds are named 'Monk'
because of they seem to wear the gray cowls, of religious sorts
Monks are fairly popular as pets around the world
Too bad they so often get lose and go feral
It was the end of a long day and thoughts began to linger on dinner. I hadn't mentioned but we had the pleasure of the company for today of a another birding tour led by a fascinating Cuban who is a crack birder, particularly for birds of his homeland. His little group included a lovely couple from Toronto Canada. So following a bit of downtime at our mutual motel, we all met up again for dinner. Larry's wife and son, lovely, both of them, joined us at a Florida City Italian restaurant. After a lovely meal the we all took part in the listing of the birds of the day. That satisfying little ritual is something I have always enjoyed after the comradely & fun of a day's birding.

Today is done. Saw loads of birds, and a lot of other fauna as well. Must have have seen hundreds of the colorful dragonflies today. The one below is called 'Halloween Pendant'. Quite pretty for a 'bug', and yeah, I'm well aware it is by no means a 'bug'. Its so pretty; the chassis on the thing looks as spruced up as the average NASCAR. No wonder many see dragonflies, or darning needles as I grew up calling them, as keeper of dreams, and the totem spirit of transformations.
Halloween Pendant  Dragonfly 

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

More Wildflowers and a little Bird Porn

Yeah, you read that right, flowers and birdie porn. Don't judge me, it's spring isn't it? And I'll get back to all that in a bit. First, I recently made a potentially rash decision to upgrade my Canon SLR camera from mid-range level to the 'can I really afford this stuff...?' level.

I find that quite amusing. You see, when out shooting wildlife photos, sometimes people are often impressed with my camera, particularly because it is always attached to humongous long lens and many people suffer big lens envy. When they do, without a trace of
modesty I tell them, "You know, in my expert hands I can make this baby function like a high end Brownie Box camera!" The joke being - on me - meaning a camera is no better than the person peering though the lens.  Unfortunately for my equipment, I'm always the untrained rube making the decisions, seldom holding still enough, seldom taking atmospheric conditions into consideration. I refuse to weigh myself down with yet another piece of equipment, however desperately needed for stability (e.g., a tripod). Therefore I decided to go for the 'if-you-can't-improve-photographer-improve-the-equipment' ruse. Probably won't work, but it sure gives one cool new toy to mess with.

Spoiler alert: I'm shifting back to this post's heading now, so send the kids out of the room.

With new camera in hand, I was out early-ish today, to the boondocks looking for something to photograph when I spotted a likely looking subject - a beautiful dark phase Swainson's Hawk, sitting in a Cottonwood tree.


The beautiful bird didn't do anything so while it sat, I faffed about my new toy camera. Before I knew it, a second Swainson's Hawk entered the scene, stage right.
"Hey girl... want to feel my feathers? Know what they're made of?
Boyfriend material."
Of course the male bird was only joshing, they seemed quite familiar with each other.
Yeah... I think they've met before
Now we know the origin of the Russian double-headed Eagle
"So long girl. Catch you on the next, nearly-as-hot-as-you thermal column" 
End result... he doesn't call... doesn't write...
Now, now, I'm just rufflin' yer feathers. That was a cool thing to see, and unlike the Bald Eagles doing a courtship flight recently, at least I had my camera ready for it.

The Swainson's weren't the only birds I saw for the day. This poor fellow below seemed a bit lonely, and was clucking to himself, that the lady pheasants were too picky, and it wasn't his fault that his tail met with an unfortunate accident.








I'll bet his missing tail had been at least as pretty as his otherwise impressive feathering.


The outback was rather wet from recent weather. This little Black-necked Stilt was found on Meiss Road where you'd never expect to see shorebirds, but when its many pastures are flooded I've seen a fair share on that area over the years, .


I actually spent more time photographing flowers than birds, with my new camera and my iPhone.
The California Poppies were delightfully photogenic 
Great year for Larkspur 
Standing ovation for these lovely, intensely blue-ishy purpley larkisih thingies
The Wally-Baskets are banging
Wild White Hyacinth
But-tuh melting over the valley swells
Not much of a workout for the new camera but you can't tell the birds when to fly or the flowers where they'd look best blooming.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Meet the Sheep day at Meridian Ranch

A special Saturday at Meridian Ranch
When visiting the new spring lambs a few weeks ago, Robin told me of today's Meet the Sheep event. Meet the Sheep means Open House on the ranch, an opportunity to meet Robin's spotted Jacobs sheep and to practice fiber arts. I'm glad I decided to participate before my spinning wheel has a chance to accumulate any dust.

On arriving I first went to the barn. There were a couple of adorable baby Angora Goats, the cutest being this loud little female, kid here.
Young Angora goats are the source of fine Mohair
There were also lots of fuzzy wuzzy baby English Angora Rabbits on display for the day as well.
Some baby bunny coochie-cooing going on here
I met the lady, Betty Chu, who owns the Angora bunnies and goats on display. She had a lot of samples of dyed fiber which caught my eye. I also caught on that she had angora rabbit fiber on sale at half off - getting ready for this year's harvest. That stunning info caused me to break a promise to myself, 'No more new fiber until you've spun all the old fiber'. Ooopsy... two bags of fiber for the price of one does a lot to heal one's soul.
The basket of pink & yellow pastel fibers were 'sun dyed' as
with sun tea. I intend to experiment with sun dying wool 
The basket - above - of darker fibers are dyed mohair fiber from goats - beautiful stuff with a nice curl. I tried to buy some raw mohair, but the goat and bunny lady is currently out. I did get her info so I have a source for more - later - after I spin up the life time's supply of fiber I already have.

When I tore myself away from the bunnies and goats it was time to set up my spinning wheel and get some work done. Many of Robin's spinning friends were here today, all set up under some lovely shade trees by her shop. Shop.. yes, must have a peek at Robin's shop before I get to work... Oh, but first, I had to walk past the display and demonstration tents...


And as long as I was passing by, might as well check out some of the demonstration items...

Felted Wools... 
Hand dyed, knit then felted decorative bowls...
Some more felted goodies...
Finally made my way into Robin's shop...
Weaving wishes...
 Sleeping Beauty's spinning wheel accouterments
And lots of ready to knit, crochet or weave, wools

Rusty at work
And the niftiest fibers this season, are Meow and Woof Yarns, inspired by and dyed to match pets. There are other types as well, such as tortoise shell cat, Malamute or Siamese kitten. A portion of the profit goes to animal charities.

The skeins below are 'Rusty's Yarn'. You may recall Rusty, Robin's handsome male Border Collie who has  his very own blog.


Now that's some premiere Rusty-quality yarn in those bags!
ACH! Always side tracked by gift shops. Enough of that (note to self, must try sun dying wool from the dye I bought...). Where the HECK was I? Oh yes, spinning.

My wheel is the one on the far right.
Always interesting to see what is on everyone else's spinning wheel. Meself, I'm spinning up some of my wool fiber cache, a warm brown wool sliver - it has reddish highlights and a sprinkling of white hairs. When dyed, the brown picks up a little of the color, and the white hairs pick up the color completely. The end result is awesome, and I'm going to hopefully dye this batch of yarn after I've plied it.

RIP My dear Adele
I have spun a lot recently, but even so I was off on how much I could accomplish in one afternoon. I brought enough wool to keep Rumpelstiltskin up to his knees in gold for a week. Still, it was fun and I enjoyed chatting with the other women. A few years ago, one of them adopted a couple of my Faverolle hens. One of them, Adele now scratches about on that big, free range pasture in the sky. Today Adele's Mom arranged to pick up two fully grown Cochin hens to boost her thinned flock. I got to meet the new hens and they were rather pretty girls. Oh, how I miss having a flock of hens.

Enough of that! Had a nice productive day which boisters my basket of spun wool at home. I still haven't found my calling in knitting yet however. Haven't done a project in ages. A while back at a party at Rick n' Nancy's I met a woman who belongs to a knitting group called... love this name... The Woolverines. I am working up my courage - and a project - so I have something to work on. They meet every Sunday afternoon at a Sacramento coffee shop. Coffee & cakes? Knitting? I'm very-nearly-almost there already.

Hum... as it is Meet the Sheep day, a parting photo of
one of Robin's peaceful flocks seems apropos