Swans

I’ve been stalking this bird for weeks. Stalking, but not harassing. Never got close enough for that. And really, only got close enough for half decent pix last week. I now realize that I’ve been seeing a solitary swan when driving by various nearby lakes for a couple of years. Saw it, but then discounted what my eyes were seeing because ‘ swans don’t live around here’. About sums up the human condition. But when I did some research on swans after seeing a trio of migrating Tundra Swan on Peters Lake in November, I realized that the imported European Mute Swan could indeed live around here. It was imported to ‘beautify’ parks & ponds and as a non-migrator would tend to stay in place. Nature being what it is, however, enough birds ‘escaped’ from this form of captivity that there are naturalized, wild breeding populations along the East Coast and around the Great Lakes. It is described by various sources as ‘invasive but contained’.

Oh, BTW, my tentative ID of the Tundra Swans has been confirmed by some naturalist friends:

” Ken,

Guess I forgot to tell you that I put one of your Tundra Swan photos up on iNaturalist, as blurry as it was, to see if those guys were willing to confirm them as Tundra Swan and within a day a fellow from northeast PA confirmed them as Tundra Swan. That’s what I believed them to be as well given location and timing.

Tim”

 When first spotted, this solitary Mute Swan was swimming at the far end of the upper pond, probably 70 yards from my vantage point. Using my iPhone with it’s maximum 2X zoom and some enlargement, this is the best I could get:

 After looking at the pictures I realized that there was a small object & wake in front of the swan. Probably following one of the mallards common there.

 Finally, after a longer cold spell, the upper pond froze over & the swan moved to the larger, lower lake. It was weeks before it settled into a small  inlet near the walking trail and I could get the following shot :

After my experiences of the last few months, I’m starting to see the limitations of the iPhone for any kind of nature photography. I’m not trying to capture birds in flight or lions on the Serengeti Plain but it’s not realistic to expect to see wild creatures at selfie/close-up distances unless you’re at a zoo. And I’m not interested in the artistic side of photography. But, if I see something new or interesting swimming 50 yards out in the lake, I want to be able to take a photo good enough for ID purposes. 

 After researching, I’ve found various companies offering clip on lenses for the iPhone camera that will add fisheye, wide angle, macro and zoom  capabilities. But each of those lenses cost about $90. And the only one I care about, the zoom, only comes with 3X. On top of the phones 2X, that gives a total of 6X zoom. More, but not really enough. I’m seriously considering a ‘good beginners quality’ Canon, digital, point & shoot, that can give up to 40X zoom. Now, you’re talking zoom. 

If any readers have camera suggestions I’d welcome them. Keep you posted.

A Christmas Bird Count Adventure

It’s 6:50AM on a Saturday morning (Dec 15) and I’m heading to my first Christmas Bird Count. It’s cold, dark, and raining. Yippee.

What’s a Christmas Bird Count ? It’s a program administered by the National Audubon Society that uses volunteer birdwatchers to take a census of birds in the Northern & Western Hemisphere winter. Yep, that’s right. Folks go out into the cold winter woods to count numbers & species of birds. Then they report this to the Audubon Society.

Dating back to Dec 1900, this is described as the longest running citizen science survey in the world. Now in year 118. The Audubon Society also partners with several other organizations in the rest of the Western Hemisphere.

According to a Facebook post by Robert Mulvihill of the National Aviary, there are 15 designated counting circles in SW PA. Each is headed by a Compiler who, as the name implies, compiles the data for that particular circle & sends it up the ladder. I’m joining the Washington Circle where the Compiler is Thomas Contreras, a Professor in the Biology Department at W & J. That’s where we’ll meet. Several other volunteers show up there. Others will be heading out directly from home to their pre-designated area in the circle. Others will be counting at bird feeders. No doubt they’ll be warmer & drier than we’ll end up.

After short discussions I’m partnered with a life -long birder. And ‘partnered’, in the birding sense only since he’s the senior managing partner in a prestigious law firm and I’m an unpaid summer intern just finishing up pre-law. (See ‘gofer’ or ‘nephew’, whichever applies.) Although, in this case, my partner was more than companionable. And if you’re going to spend 3 hours walking in the cold rain with someone, companionable is the least that you hope for.

We got our assigned area and headed out. We ended up south of Washington in the area around Prosperity & Bells Lakes, crisscrossing Ten Mile Creek or some tributary  several times.

A few things I learned from my birding partner :

There’s a big difference between a ‘walk in the woods’ and a birders ‘walk in the woods’. The latter is much, much, much, slower. In 3 hours in the field my partner estimated that we’d only walked about 1.5 miles. After all, if you’re looking for ” little brown jobs ” (an informal  term referring to the large families of small plain colored birds) hiding in the brush you have to look long & hard.

 There’s also some unique vocabulary & techniques :

“Pishing” is simply the act of saying “pish,pish,pish” several times in the hope that a curious bird will poke it’s head out of the brush. You do it in the same tone you might use in saying “Psshh” to someone. Not too loud. It didn’t help flush any birds that day but, later, it would get my dogs attention every time.

“Squeaking” is another form of pishing. To squeak, nosily kiss the back of your hand. This makes a noise, you hope, like a bird scolding a predator. It can entice other birds to join in.

You can also get something called a “squeaker”. A little noise maker to do something similar. Although when I searched “birders squeaking noise” I got a video of a parrot that made a squeaking sound when squeezed. Followed by an endless series of videos of parrots making funny sounds. Who knew?

The binoculars recommended were typically described in range of 843 or 845 to 1050. The 8 or 10 refers to magnification. And there’s a tradeoff. The lower magnification gives a wider field of vision while the higher magnification offers  a narrower field. For hand held binoculars, and for following a bird in flight, a wider field is very important. And water proof binoculars with good lens optics do not come cheap. A truly good pair can cost $1500-$2000.

Well, it rained the entire time we were out. And the temperature hovered around 46F. Chilling. About 2 hours into the field trip I decided I better put my gloves on or I wouldn’t be able to grip the keys for my cars ignition.

Did the birds cooperate? Not so much. In that weather any bird with an instinct for self -preservation was hunkered down in the thickest brush it could find, trying to stay warm and dry.

But, will I do it again? Absolutely. It is a way to learn something new while doing something worthwhile. And if you’re lucky, that’s as good as retirement gets.

Ken Yonek
12/16/18

In Search of Swans

On Thursday, 11/15, Frodo & I were taking our regular walk near Peters Lake in Peters Twp. It was cold & raining, but a dogs gotta do what a dogs gotta do. It would be a short walk. As we walked along the lake, I spotted the three large white birds, pictured below, near the middle of the lake. I’ve seen snow geese in migration that  stopped there once, but these seemed too large for geese and there was none of the blue/gray color variations I saw the last time. I wondered if they were swans, but they “didn’t look like swans”. More about that thought later. 

 As soon as Frodo had done his duty, we hustled back to the car. I grabbed my iPhone and left Frodo in the back seat. I didn’t hear any complaints from him as I left. Guess even he’d rather be warm & dry than cold & wet. I took several pictures. These were the best of a bad lot. I’ve since retained a consultant ( my granddaughter) who showed me how to use the cameras zoom feature &  then further zoom & take a screen shot of the subsequent pix. I explained to her that they were most likely swans but could be snow geese (less likely in my opinion) and the birds having a black bill rather than a light colored bill would confirm it as a swan. As she ramped up thru increasingly blurry enlargements she suddenly said, ” they’re getting fuzzy, but they have black bills”. I can almost see them myself but as I read further about swans I  concluded there was only one ID likely.

There are 3 swans found in North America.

 1. Trumpeter Swan – Although there are some populations around the Great Lakes it’s main range is across the northern tier to the West Coast, then north into Canada. It has a black bill but, more decisively, the Cornell website describes these as ” immense birds ” that can reach 30 lbs + in size with a wingspan of 8 ft & over. It’s described as the worlds largest swan, the largest waterfowl in North America, and one of the world’s largest flying birds. My trio above were clearly not immense bids. So, not Trumpeter Swans.

2. Mute Swan – This is a non-native, European, bird. It was imported to decorate our ponds & parks, so it can be found all over the country. It is slightly smaller that the Trumpeter, but clearly mine were not mute swans (below).

3. Tundra Swan – This is a white swan with a black bill. It is considerably smaller than Trumpeters or Mutes. It’s summer breeding range is, as the name suggests, along the Arctic Circle from Canada to Alaska. In the Fall, easternmost populations take a migratory route that can pass over W PA on their way to wintering grounds along the Atlantic coast from Maryland to the Carolinas. I think this is the bird I saw.

 Comfortable with the ID, I wondered why my first impressions were that they ” didn’t look like swans “. And then I came to understand why I expected swans to have a certain look.

* The only live swans I had ever seen were likely those stocked in parks & ponds. These were invariably Mute Swan.

* Early images of swans, in e.g. Disney movies, were also Mute Swan.

* As a child, my reading included the classical fairy tales of European authors like Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm. Naturally, if the story had anything to do with a swan, the illustrations would be that of the European Mute Swan.

* As a result, my minds classical image of a swan was that of a large white bird with swept back wings held high on the back; a long, gracefully arched neck; right down to the large black ‘nose bump’ at the base of a light colored bill. In short, a Mute Swan.

 I rather enjoyed that short voyage of discovery. I  hope you have the opportunity for similar ones.

Fishing on the Mon

It was great opening day on Pigeon Creek.

What opening day?

Of trout season.

On Pigeon Creek in Monongahela?

Yep.

Pigeon Creek hadn’t been stocked with trout by the State of Pennsylvania, or anyone else, for years. But, on April 9, the Valley Inn Sportsmen Association , and their business community sponsors, stocked trout, up to 20′ in length, in Pigeon Creek from Peno’s Plaza along Rt 481 to the I 43 bridge on Bentleyville Rd. I hadn’t been able to attend the stocking but I figured that if I drove along Park Ave. it wouldn’t be hard to tell where the fish ( & anglers ) were. Sure enough, every place where there was parking & access from the road, there were clusters of cars & anglers. Talked to several. They ranged from the angler who reported he & his family caught, released & lost several Rainbow Trout (and the baits he was using) to the fellow who said he caught two but didn’t know that much about fish & couldn’t say what kind they were. But they were all having fun. It was a sunny, mild, day in the low 70’s at 10 AM on a Saturday morning & they were out there with their families & friends. Catching fish, or not. Almost didn’t matter. They were doing something they enjoyed with people they cared about.

Thanks to the Valley Inn Sportsmen Association for giving them that opportunity.

The Ospreys on Peters Lake

Today, 4/3, was the best bird (Osprey) watching day I’ve ever had. After seeing a pair at Peters Lake on Sunday and a loner on Monday, I figured that a smart bird was going to be hunkered down in the conifers around the lake. Staying out of the rain. (Yeah, we were out walking it it.) I guess I forgot that if your lifestyle requires diving into the water to eat, being wet is just part of the deal.

We were rounding the bend at the upper (shallower) end of the lake when one barreled in front of us, from right to left, heading down lake. Over  the next few minutes that bird made one dive after another into the water. The most spectacular came after it had spiraled up over treetop height, wheeled around & dropped straight down the elevator shaft into the water. Whoa ! Either that bird was very hungry or he had a nesting mate that was. If it continues to be spending a lot of time fishing then I’m guessing the latter. I couldn’t tell, from across the lake, if it’d been successful. Sooner or later, though, practice will pay.

Next thing, this Great Blue Heron just about flew into my pocket. It came across a small inlet & landed less than 20′ feet away. It seemed to be so focused, staring in the direction of the Osprey, that it never even glanced  at the dog & I very close by. Guessing, again, that an active potential predator or competitor ( for the fish ) just naturally demands it’s full attention.

Have fun out there.

Ken Yonek

Osprey Sightings by a River Town Friend

Before going out to visit family on Easter morning Frodo, our Standard Poodle, & I had our normal walk around a local lake (Peters Lake Park, Nottingham Township, Washington County).

I’d read about the Osprey cam on a nest at Lake Arthur since last week of March but frankly was a bit mystified. At our local lake I hadn’t seen any sign of fish activity at surface or in shallows until about Wednesday last. But the Osprey at Lake Arthur must be able to catch something to eat. In the last two years I’ve first seen Osprey at our lake in early April, so I’ve been on the lookout.

Came around a bend in the road this morning & there it was. Perfect visibility, with the sun to my back. A white head over dark brown shoulders perched on a branch over the water. Beautiful. And as a Cheshire Cat grin spread over my face there was a splash behind me. Looked over my left shoulder just in time to see a second Osprey ( it’s mate I assume) pulling itself out of the water with something in its claw. Not a big something, but something. After a couple of loops & dips around the 1st bird it flew off to another tree. Showing off. ‘ See what I caught’. The 1st bird didn’t look impressed. I have a feeling the female Osprey spends a lot of time watching the male fishing before she’ll set up ‘nest keeping’. Just to be sure that he can bring home the bacon (fish), so to speak.

Last month I saw a solitary Horned Grebe paddling around the same lake. This morning I think I saw 8 of them together. I say ‘think’ because they were in the middle of the pond & I don’t carry field glasses walking the dog. White & black colors showed up clearly although shape was indistinct at that distance. Size was right as well as some mostly white necks. And when a couple of mallards paddled out the difference between the lighter sides of a mallard & the bright white on these birds was stark. So, I’m goin’ with Horned Grebe again.

Have fun out there.

Ken Yonek

The Mon River Towns: A Journey Of Development

The Mon River Towns offer a historic area to visitors wanting to get outdoors.

Picture the Monongahela River. Now picture the towns nestled alongside it. Now ask yourself – are you picturing the towns as they are today? Or as they once were?

Change is constant, especially in this part of the state. If you haven’t visited the towns sitting along the Mon in the last two or three years, you might be pleasantly surprised by what you see the next time you pass through one. Many changes have taken place in these towns, thanks in part to the work by the River Towns Program.

The Mon River Towns offer a historic area to visitors wanting to get outdoors.The Mon River Towns Program works with communities bordering the Monongahela River to highlight Pennsylvania’s growing outdoor recreational market, and to make it easy to help residents and visitors connect with the beautiful river. The Program is presently an initiative of the National Road Heritage Corridor and was launched by the statewide Pennsylvania Environmental Council in 2011.

“These are towns looking at new opportunities,” Cathy McCollom, director of the River Towns Program, says about this region and communities within it. “They were once industrial towns. The Mon was and remains an industrial highway but it is now also a recreational river. With the changing economy, we help communities look at the river in a different way.”

The River Towns Program is dedicated to improving the visitor infrastructure in these towns. The first step in doing so is for community leaders and River Town Program staff to consider how the towns appear to travelers. For example, is there public access to the Mon River for visitors? Are there community parks next to the river or view corridors open to the river? Are there signs to direct traffic, and restaurants for families to enjoy? Are there historic buildings and cultural spots of significance and are they highlighted and accessible to visitors?

Since 2011, questions like these have driven improvements on infrastructure such as launches and docks, public access, signage, and added amenities such as public restrooms, public art and riverfront parks. Most importantly, communities have worked with Program staff to raise over $3 million, not only for these projects but also to market the region.

According to Cathy, “The projects have included canoe and kayak launches, riverfront parks, directional and gateway signage, improved public launches, riverfront landscaping and clearings, and multiple events such as summer riverfront concerts, festivals, and paddling events. With community leadership and organizational partners, we have led riverfront master planning, public art projects, and business attraction workshops – and have offered entrepreneurial business grants to encourage new businesses.”

And these efforts are paying off. Nature lovers – taking advantage of new boat launches and trails – are helping to bring outdoor recreational traffic through these Mon River towns. New businesses have opened in several of the communities. Gateway and directional signage is now more prevalent. Over two dozen pieces of public art have added a layer of beauty to towns and riverfronts. And River Festivals have literally sprung up across the map. At River Town Program’s founding, there were three such festivals in operation – currently, there are twelve!

But while our team can talk about this work all day every day, we truly think it has to be experienced. A visit to a river town during an event or a peaceful weekend of local travel is the best way to highlight local changes, and to experience the history. From green spaces to new businesses to local history spots, there is so much to experience in the Mon River Towns.

Ready to plan a visit? We can help you get started! Our website houses a list of River Towns and even sample itineraries to help you hit the road quickly and easily. Happy travels!