Category Archives: Birding

Ticks nothing to fool about

This may be April Fools Day and this blog is no trick, but anybody who ignores the threat of ticks is a fool.

YOU CAN CLICK HERE to read one of the dozens of articles and research papers published annually about the threat the world’s tiniest terrorists are spreading across the country.

This isn’t a scare tactic, it’s a fact of the outdoors for this millennium.

Coating clothing with permathrin is one of the best ways to avoid getting ticks, when used properly.

Coating clothing with permethrin is one of the best ways to avoid getting ticks, when used properly.

I’ve spoken with several people, including some in Kansas, who have survived Lyme Disease and all have said it’s taken them months for recovery.

A good friend, Luke Templin, contracted Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever while turkey hunting on our farm last spring. Even though the disease was detected before any serious symptoms set in, it took him several weeks before he felt totally over the bad experience.

I’ve heard of people who have basically been crippled for life from Lyme Disease.  A young woman who several in my extended family knew died from the disease several years ago.

As someone who is in the outdoors a lot, I’ve been guilty of not taking the threat seriously enough. I’ve found more than 20 ticks on my body several times, I used to go entire springs and summers with no real prevention because I didn’t want to put chemicals on my body, and still don’t relish the concept, but…

Like many, now my favorite alternative is to treat my clothing with permethrin. It lasts for a few months, even through a few washings. I coated my camo, from boots to cap, with it on Monday morning and it’s been given plenty of time to dry. (You don’t want the stuff on your body when it’s wet!) I, and millions of others, recommend it highly, but be sure to read the directions before you apply it.

YOU CAN CLICK HERE FOR MORE ADVICE ON HOW TO AVOID TICKS. 

The vultures are back in Marion!

Like has happened every spring for the last several years, the birds have returned!

The annual gathering of turkey vultures in Marion.Friends in the town say they’ve been in the air by the hundreds the past few days, gracefully soaring about, ranging from a few feet above the trees to tiny specks high in the sky.

No, I’m not talking about some silly little swallows or the skinny-legged, geeky-looking over-sized shorebirds that gather along the Platte in Nebraska.

The turkey vultures of Marion County are back!

Last May we ran a fun newspaper feature on how nature’s clean-up crew gathered every evening on the city’s water tower, which sits on the edge of the school grounds, basically at the east edge of the CBD. YOU CAN CLICK HERE TO READ THE ORIGINAL STORY, AND ACCESS A PHOTO GALLERY WITH 50 PHOTOS.

Friday evening I noticed a gathering of easily 100-plus just around the park on Highway 77, in the north part of El Dorado, so the migration must be getting solid.

Last year I visited Marion around May 9th, and was probably past the peak of the migration according to a friend who lives near the roost.

The annual gathering of turkey vultures in Marion.A few Marion residents were actually appreciative of being able to watch the birds coming in to roost in the evening. Not so much, though, for the guy who had them roosting above his yard.

Pheasant photography not easy

My toes felt like icicles, and my arms were starting to ache from holding a heavy camera and big telephoto lens out from my body, cocked at a funny angle, for what seemed like an hour, but was probably an honest minute or so. A rooster pheasant five yards away had heard the tiniest scratch of the lens against the side of the pop-up blind and was on full alert.

A rooster pheasant is on full-alert after hearing the hum of a camera's auto-focus.

A rooster pheasant is on full-alert after hearing the hum of a camera’s auto-focus.

He left the scene, tail arrogantly cocked in the air leaving me vowing to be even quieter the next time.

Tuesday afternoon I spent three or four frigid hours in a blind near a deer feeder in western Harvey County. Both were set in an overgrown pasture of hedge trees and cedars. The feeder is intended for deer, but pheasants and a variety of songbirds eat the yellow grain. I’d also poured some sunflower seeds next to a nearby cedar to sweeten the deal.

An assortment of cardinals and Harris sparrows flushed when I walked on to the scene, and most were back by the time I was in the blind, and had my cameras turned on and ready to go. Piece of cake, I thought, when the pheasants showed up I’d fill a few hundred frames of the brilliant plumage glowing the in the late afternoon light, standing in strict contrast to the thick, white snow.

Boy was I ever wrong. I’ve had days when it’s been a lot easier to shoot them with a shotgun, compared to the photography challenges on Tuesday.

Problems included the blind being too close to the feed, which was largely because the pasture is so thick I couldn’t get more than about eight yards away.

The wind had also totally died, which gave the pheasants super-sensitive hearing every advantage.  Also because of the cold, the blind’s fabric was stiff and incredibly noisy.

A rooster pheasant that finally sneaked from beneath a cedar tree, to grab some food in the open.

A rooster pheasant that finally sneaked from beneath a cedar tree, to grab some food in the open.

The first pheasant to walk in heard the hum of the camera’s auto-focus, then went into some fast high-stepping when the shutter started firing and was gone in seconds.

The snow-coated pop-up blind was stiff and noisy Tuesday afternoon, when used as a photography blind.

The snow-coated pop-up blind was stiff and noisy Tuesday afternoon, when used as a photography blind.

At least six different roosters came to the feed, and all stuck to cover as best they could. They, and several hens, liked to stay under a huge cedar where some food had been scattered. Occasionally one would sneak out, peck a few kernels of corn then retreat back under the boughs.

More than half of the roosters spooked before I even got them in the viewfinder. Three or four frames is the most I got of any one bird, and my camera fires at about eight frames per second.

I’ll be out for a few hours early Wednesday morning, in another blind that’s further from a feeder and where the birds and the blind should be in warming sunshine. No matter, I’m danged sure wearing heavier boots  this time.

Ah, November – sunset at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge

No question, November is my favorite month of the year. It’s a time of several weeks or so of vacation, with times taken out for covering the opening weekend of pheasant season and whatever other outdoors event that’s both fun and worthy of an outdoors page feature.

From time to time this November I’ll be blogging on how the month is going.

So far, so great.

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Many of my November days are spent hunting ducks with Hank in the morning and sitting in a blind hoping to arrow a buck in the afternoon.

At least once a November, though, I spend the afternoon inside the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge burning a few hundred digital frames at rutting whitetails and assorted waterfowl.

Sandhill cranes against a brilliant sunset at the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, a favored photography stop in November.

One of those afternoons happened when I noticed the solid clouds of morning and early afternoon began to break at about 3 p.m. A connoisseur of great sunsets, I figured the clouds would be nicely fragmented by sundown…and they were.

For about an hour I cruised slowly , taking photos of some nice whitetail bucks distracted by raging hormones and tamed by never being legally hunted.

Never hunted, the rutting whitetail bucks at the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge offer great opportunities for photographers.

Finally, I ended up pushing the refuge’s speed limit to make it to the legendary Big Salt Marsh just in time for one of the better sunsets of my life. Flocks of sandhill cranes silhouetted against the brilliant colors added greatly to the photography and experience.

You can expect to see a column, and a lot more photos, about the day on a coming Outdoors page and on kansas.com/outdoors.

Oil exploration crews = paradise lost

Stakes with flittering bright ribbon shows oil exploration crew are working an area, often hard enough to push wildlife to other places.

Literally hundreds of times I’ve told people it is my favorite quarter-section in Kansas. Thanks to the landowner’s preference for wildlife over cash crops, the 160 acres usually held more wildlife than a good parcel of 1,000 acres or more.

Bordering the  Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, the land was a magical mixture of food plots, farm fields, native grasses, dense thickets and a fine waterfowl pond. One December afternoon I sat in an elevated shooting house and counted, at one tim,  40 deer, 137 wild turkeys, 11 rooster pheasants and a combined 500 ducks and geese…all on that one piece of land.

Saturday morning I walked much of the property and deer tracks were rare enough to make me notice. Last year and the nine before they dug deep enough into the sandy soil to look like a popular national forest hiking trail. Most years so many saplings have been rubbed by bucks the place looks like it had  been through a tornado. I found just one rub, and two scrapes, and the latter usually pock the landscape like dimples on a golf ball.

Instead there were bright stakes planted in the ground and scores or orange tapes blowing in the wind. Tracks made by the oil exploration crew criss-crossed the food plots and the stands of tall, native grass.

Folks who’ve been through such explorations say the crews will be there at least another month, with coincides with about the time I’m done with my beloved November time from work.

It’s disappointing. It’s frustrating…but technically I have no reason to be angry. Many I’ve talked to who have also lost prime wildlife areas to similar crews this fall aren’t so open-minded.

Well, it’s not my property. It’s owned by a very good friend who has been extremely generous to allow me to be one of the very few allowed to access the land. If I lost access today I’d still owe him very sincere thanks for some of the finest outdoors experiences of my life.

I’ll be honest and say part of me hopes they don’t find oil there, but that’s not fair to my host. He’s invested a lot of time and money to places I’ve enjoyed for many years at the cost of nothing but my thanks and friendship. He deserves some pay-back from the land.

Of course if they don’t find oil, the stakes, ribbons and small army of workers will eventually be gone and the wildlife will probably quickly return. If crude is found, the wells and assorted equipment probably won’t cover but a fraction of the property.

Time will tell, and all I can do is wait patiently and appreciatively.

Golden eagle predation on big game not “a first”

Many news services have recently run photography of a golden eagle taking a small deer in Russia. Most claim it’s the first time such a thing has been documented. YOU CAN CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE RECENT PHOTOS.

Not quite.

Golden eagles have been documented preying on fawn and adult antelope, even recently in Kansas.

Golden eagles are the real warriors of the bird world, unlike bald eagles which would just as soon feast on a dead carp as go catch and kill something. Goldens have caused problems for some ranchers for years, taking lambs, sometimes sheep, and calves.

They’ve been documented killing bighorn sheep lambs, antelope and mule deer fawns and occasionally adults of both species of deer. CLICK HERE FOR VIDEO OF A GOLDEN EAGLE TAKING DOWN A SMALL DEER.

A few years ago I blogged about a friend who happened across a Gove County golden eagle on a pronghorn fawn it had just killed. A few days later he and his father found a dead pronghorn doe with exactly the same kind of wounds — signs of talons on the backbone and feeding up high on the animal as the eagle held on. YOU CAN CLICK HERE TO RE-VISIT THAT BLOG.

In fact, in Wyoming a study was done documenting what golden eagles often kill. CLICK HERE TO READ THE STUDY IN WYOMING’S GREAT DIVIDE BASIN. Big game aren’t their main prey, that’s normally jackrabbits, but it’s certainly not too unusual.

A little more checking online finds videos of golden eagles preying on assorted mountain goats and even wolves in Asia.
Like I said, the true warriors of the bird world.

Return of native grass coming nicely

In its third complete year, native grasses planted on the Pearce farm are lush and tall. Wildlife has responded to the habitat well. too.

Sunday at the family farm may have been the hottest I’ve ever worked on the 180 acres north of Lawrence. The temperature was right at 100 degrees and the humidity not terribly far behind.

But I swear, the temperature seemed to drop 20 degrees every time I drove past the stands of native grass we planted in the spring, I think, of  2010. Looking at the fields was that refreshing.

Where once had been stagnant acres of brome and fescue now feather-topped Indian grass  and stately big bluestem reach to about seven feet high and are as thick as hair on my Lab.

Honestly, the fields have grown three feet or more in the past month and that part of Kansas has had a pretty dry summer compared to around Wichita.

Back in the spring of 2010 Jerrod, our friend Luke Templin and I literally combined hundreds of hours spraying the old pasture three and four times to get the old junk grass killed-off and the mix of seven grasses and 13 forbs planted.  Most people familiar with re-establishing native prairie told us to be patient, it could take years before we saw much.

The past three years haven’t been too bad.

We’ve enjoyed some nice patches of colorful wild flowers and the grasses have done well when rains allowed.  As hoped, wildlife has responded.

Some of the Indian and big bluestem grasses are pushing seven-feet tall in some places. Seven kinds of grasses and 13 forbs were planted in 2010. This wasn’t a good year for wild flowers.

Deer hunting one January afternoon I watched a pair of northern harriers work back and forth over the six or so acres of grass for more than an hour, a species of bird I don’t think I’d ever seen give our farm more than a fly-by in the past. After seeing a total of one over the previous 35 or so years, rabbits are commonly seen on the place, as are woodchucks.

And as a side benefit, while many of the pastures and farm fields in the area have dealt with a problematic crop of musk thistles the past two years there are none where we have the prairie grasses. (Guess what’s going to be planted in a one-acre meadow that’s been prone to thistles for years?)

That so much has happened even after two years of the worst drought our family has seen on the land since we got it in 1942 is impressive. I can hardly wait to see what the wildflowers could be like next spring if this fall and winter have even average amounts of moisture.

 

 

Tulsa’s purple martin majesty…400,000 strong!

It’s no secret I’ve enjoyed the Wichita purple martin show near the Via Christi medical complex on St. Francis for several years. It seemed so special to be in such a setting and have 40,000 or so of the birds swirling about overhead, then pouring themselves into a tiny line of trees under the glow of street lights.

Well, I just found out I’m going to be making a road trip next year, to see a much better purple martin show in downtown Tulsa. I’d read online that it is not uncommon for 250,000 of the great little birds to gather there.

Mark Schuyler, a local dentist who I’ve spend some great times with at the Wichita roost, went to Tulsa last week and estimated their flights at closer to 400,000 birds. Even my limited math skills shows thats 10-times better than the best show I’ve seen in Wichita. Another person at the same event, an Oklahoman, assured me there were at least 300,000 birds at the Tulsa roost.

Schuyler was kind enough to SHARE SOME FINE VIDEO of what he and his family saw last week. When you click this link, you should go to a page that shows you three other videos “Docshu” shot that same evening.

As well as numbers,the Tulsa birds seem to be openly embraced by local businesses, unlike Via Christi which altered much of the bird’s habitat this summer.

In Oklahoma, a downtown hotel allows parking on the top floor of their parking garage, which puts viewers directly in the bird’s flight patterns as they descend into the trees below. The Audubon people in Tulsa offer educational evenings for the public, and keep martin updates on their website. They also have link so viewers can express their appreciation for the birds to the Tulsa mayor’s office.

While the birds will probably be around another week or so in Tulsa, our schedules won’t allow us time to go down for a viewing this year.

But I’m danged sure seeing a road trip a few hours to the south and east coming in August, 2014.

Wow,…400,000!

Turkey vulture in a tux still not pretty

As is usually the case, Tuesday morning I was sticking to the backroads, spending most of my time watching anywhere but the road, when  I spotted a bunch of about 20 turkey vultures spread amid the top of a dead tree and a few fence posts. About 40 yards away, perched by itself, was a lone vulture. When I passed by it opened it’s wings and I saw the body was splashed with white.

This piebald turkey vulture was photographed between Sterling and the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge on Tuesday morning.

I’ve seen normally black birds splashed with white coloring before, but they’ve been crows that were obviously roosting on the lower branches of  of a communal roost tree.(Insert “ewwwhhhh” and wrinkled face, here), but I’d never seen a vulture like this.

Turning a quick, but careful U-turn in a soft spot down the road, I checked the bird first with binoculars and saw it was what I’d thought – a piebald turkey vulture, with most of its white plumage up around it’s neck.

As I let the car roll slowly down the road towards the bird, three birds from the tree pitched down into the middle of the road. The bird with the tuxedo feathering followed, landing amid them. As soon as he landed the other three vultures walked several yards away, and wouldn’t look back at the piebald bird.

When the birds flushed as a truck barreled towards them, (which I thought was fairly rude since I was obviously in the middle of photo shoot,) the white and black bird landed on a fence post about 50 yards from the others. I think there’s no doubt he’s being shunned.

Other vultures seemed to shun the piebald bird on the ground, and it roosted many yards away from the other birds when they were in trees or on fence posts.

Home after an afternoon of shooting pics at Cheyenne Bottoms and the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, I pulled up the shots of the off-colored buzzard first. The white plumage is kind of striking, but it still leads into what has to be the ugliest mug in the bird world.

But at least he looks better than the other vultures that were shunning him…I wonder if they were jealous?

Wichita’s purple martin show uncertain

For several years Kansans gathered at a parking lot south of Via Christi St. Francis, to marvel at up to about 50,000 purple martins that gathered in a communal roost just east of the hospital. Many families of several generations gathered for the last hour of daylight show, and several friendships were made between wildlife watchers who repeatedly found each other at the event.

The popular little insect-eaters gather in such locations in several sizable cities shortly after most of their young are fledged, before making August migrational runs towards wintering areas in South America.

A tiny percentage of the purple martins that roosted in a line of trees at Via Christi St. Francis the past few years. The roosting area has been altered, and the birds are looking for an alternative site.

I know people came from at least 70 miles to see the show. Many couples had made it an annual event to have a fun dinner in Old Town, then catch the purple martins on their way home. Many brought lawn chairs and picnic dinners, too.

But things have changed, as they often do when wildlife is involved. The line of trees at the edge of the seldom used evening parking lot have had a sizable manicure. A hospital source said it was done to remove branches damaged in wind storm, and to remove others for the health and beauty of the trees. With only about half as much foliage as in the past, this summer the purple martins are trying to form a communal roost just west of Via Christi. Some of the trees are in a crowded parking lot and some over an entrance often used by employees. Fearing disease could come in via bird poo tracked in from the parking lot, Via Christi staff has been trying to spook the birds from the new roosting area.

So far, the purple martins don’t seem to want to leave. The species that nests almost entirely in man-made structures also finds comfort in well-lit areas with dense trees that offer protection from predators. Via Christi has the best of both in the area.

Hopefully the birds will settle into a roosting area with less human activity, and one where the public can again enjoy the great show.