Lawn of the Dead

I’ve never understood the societal need for lawns. Why do people bring in ugly, invasive turf grass, just to spend all their time trying to kill it?

Smells like death.

DIE!

 

Lawns originally started out as pasture land.  Slowly,  it evolved into the English lawn, a walkway or place of recreation. It was a symbol of wealth that said that the homeowner could afford land with no expressed purpose. After World War II, lawns took hold in the United States. Suburbs were built with little patches of grass in front of them that raised the property value if managed.

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The problem with these patches of grass, is the fact that they are essentially ecological dead zones.

1. Lawns drive out native species.

Bermuda grass, a common turf grass competes with native grasses and chokes them out.

Bermuda Grass

Bermuda Grass

Fescue competes with native grasses and displaces them.

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You may recognize many of these because they are considered weeds. They often prey on each other and attempt to drive each other out.

2. Lawns provide very little cover from predators.

The Eastern Cottontail lives in the brush. It protects its young in and it escapes predators in the brush. It does not in in holes like rabbits in Europe, its entire life is just short bursts outside the brush.

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Where in an environment like this, could the rabbit escape predators?

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3. Lawns provide little to no food sources.

Very little eats the grass of a lawn. The Japanese Beetle and its grub, another invasive species, eats Bermuda grass. You have a vicious insect that destroys any plant it in comes in contact with, being harbored in lawns everywhere. Chipping Sparrows also enjoy short grasses.

4. Lawns deplete natural water sources.

People water their lawns. Especially here in the South. It was estimated that, “whether you choose a fixed amount or choose an amount tied to weather and evaporation, domestic and commercial water use for lawns would be 695 to 900 liters (184 to 238 gallons) per person per day if all lawns [in the Lower 48] were well-watered.” (http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Lawn/lawn3.php) That’s enough water to fill more swimming pools than I can fit into a picture, but I will try anyway.

I tried.

I tried.

There are more responsible alternatives out there. For example, Arizona’s Native Plant Society offers alternatives to bermuda grass that are much better for the environment for that state. A native alternative is always less work!

Perhaps we can enter a new era, where one can distinguish their status by the amount of life the have on their property.

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Do Not Disturb!

A Carolina Wren decided to nest in a plant, as wrens do. I decided that that I would photograph their development for your viewing pleasure.

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A few weeks later I noticed that they had developed a lot more feathers and were A LOT bigger. So, I got my camera to take a photo  like I had done before. I took one photo quickly. It was blurry and just generally bad. Surely another one couldn’t hurt? The shutter went off and the mass of wrens twitched. Suddenly, three little wrens were out of the nest scrambling all over the place. We tried to put them back in the nest, but they got away. All because I didn’t I have enough self control to walk away. Luckily, they were old enough to fly and I have seen them since, trailing behind their mother.
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It is always important to remember when you are birding, photographing wildlife, or whatever activity you are doing, that you are an observer. It is often difficult when you are trying to get that rare species on your list, to remember that it is a living creature that has fragile needs to survive. It is not pretty toy to be played with.  They don’t owe you anything. Be careful not to disturb them!

Extracting Perspective From Bird Banding

Birds are other-worldly creatures that are always out of our grasp. Whether they are a warbler at the top of a tree, or a sparrow at the bottom of a clump grass, they seem unreal. Until they are hanging in a net. Bird Banding provides a unique opportunity to handle birds and get to know them. They are no longer beautiful automatons, they are real animals with personality.

Me with a Female Summer Tanager

Summer Tanager

Northern Cardinals, everyone knows and loves them. They hop around feeders with titmice in tow, without a care in the world. Cardinals in the hand, however, are not that pleasant. My first experience with our crested friend was when I was nine or ten. It was one of my first outings to a Banding Station. I wanted to hold a Northern Cardinal because I was a stupid child. It was given to me and was acting very calm. I placed it on the palm of my other hand and I let it go. The Cardinal stood up in my palm, looked me dead in the eyes, bit my thumb, and promptly flew away. As I looked at the crevice in my thumb, I decided never to trust my own judgment again.

NEVER TRUST A CARDINAL.

NEVER TRUST A CARDINAL.

They want to make the t-shirts for the Banding Station on Jekyll Island, GA, purple. That decision is motivated solely by the behavior of the Gray Catbird. Catbirds eat the berries of the Poke Weed among other things. They stealthy maneuver around the plants and eat the berries. You probably wouldn’t notice them if wasn’t for their soft “mew”. In the net, you couldn’t ever forget they were there because of their loud screaming. They also have the charming habit of dumping their last meal directly on you, turning your t-shirt purple.

 

There are calmer birds. Field Sparrows sit calmly in net and patiently wait to be extracted. Rarely do they bite. Chestnut-sided Warblers, Palm Warblers, Black-throated Blue Warblers, Chipping Sparrows, and Swainson’s Thrushes are all pleasant to handle. Brown-headed Nuthatches are surprisingly calm in the net. One would think they would be screaming and shaking like they do in the trees, but they very quiet and cooperative in the net.

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Chestnut-sided Warbler

Swainson’s Thrushes are really soft. They would make the best pillows! They are like silk and mink combined into an awesome feathery package!

Swainson's Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush

Noah’s Ark

Noah’s Ark is place I have loved to visit ever since I can remember. With diverse species exotic as well as native what more could you ask for? Another side benefit is, every time I go there the animals do something odd. Not odd as in something is wrong with them, odd as in quirky or dare I say it, cute.

What is Noah’s Ark? Noah’s Ark is a nonprofit organization that provides care and treatment for more than 1,500 animals, including exotic, wildlife and domestic animals. Noah’s Ark provides habitats that have the animals’ best interests in mind and that mimic their natural environments. Noah’s Ark promotes humane, responsible and informed animal treatment and ownership.

Their mission is:

  • To provide a home for injured, abused and orphaned animals.
  • To provide awareness through our rehab/education programs that emphasize all living things have value no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. When we as a society can recognize this fact, we will begin to win the battles for conservation and preservation.
  • To provide unconditional love and care for animals who have special needs in their lives whether mental, physical or emotional.

Who could have a problem with that?

Here are some photos from the last time I visited Noah’s Ark.
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Kestrel Krossing


The Youth Birding Competition is a 24-hour birding event during the peak of spring migration. Youth teams spend the day finding as many species as they can as they compete against teams their own age in the state of Georgia. At least 2 people should see or hear the bird and correctly identify it. It begins at 5pm and ends at 5pm the following day at Charlie Elliot Wildlife Center. It was founded by Tim Keyes in 2005, when he was inspired by the World Series of Birding Youth Challenge.

The Chaotic Kestrels team was founded by me in 2006 and has been active ever since. This year the team was made up of five members: Rosemary, a world class marks-woman, talented artist, and YBC mentor. Patrick, master of identification, world traveler, and is quick to spot a rare bird. Evan, track star , great photographer, and football aficionado. Angus, photography fiend, great artist, and somehow sees and hears everything. Finally there is me, Ethan, coordinator, possessor of van, and eater of food.

Our story begins on Friday April 25th, when my father and I picked up Evan and his father, Todd, in Macon. We were all going to meet on the coast like we had in years past. Normally, we camp on Jekyll Island, but this year Rosemary managed to get us a place to stay in Darien near Atamaha Wildlife Management Area. The trip down was calm and pleasant. My father and Todd talked about photography, while Evan beat me at chess. It was nice, and it would be the only peace they would get the entire weekend. We’re called chaotic for a reason.

When we arrived at Altamaha, I lost a majority of my voice. Voices are important if you want to tell people where birds are! I didn’t have much time to think about it before Rosemary runs up to us talking about the bees. Naturally “beeing” curious, I asked to see the bees, and sure enough there was two boxes of honey bees. Then she went to go talk to some Department of Natural Resources people who were there, leaving as suddenly as she had appeared. Evan and I then went inside unload our gear where we greeted by Rosemary’s little sister. She said, “Don’t mess anything up,” and abruptly left. Looking around the check station I noticed that it did have 500 less mice then I remembered it having, so I didn’t. We then ate lunch and heard stories about Rosemary and her family shooting hogs to protect sea turtles on the coast.

We came back to home base to pick up Angus and Patrick. We met Angus’ dad and his little sister, and he explained that they were over looking at some ducks. The way Altamaha is set up, it had two big platforms that you can set scopes up on. Also, there are trails so you can walk along the water. Naturally, they were a mile down one of those trails. Evan, Angus’ Dad, Rosemary, and I set out to find them, but that soon turn it to just Evan and me. By the time we found them my voicelessness had progressed into a lovely cold. Patrick, Angus, and his little brother’s team had found Lesser Scaup, Black-necked Stilt, and more birds. We then drug them back to the home base. The Chaotic Kestrels were reunited!

It was 4:57pm, we were on South Beach, Jekyll Island. Angus, Evan, Rosemary, and Patrick were watching a flock of various of gulls and terns. I was continuing my annual tradition of watching my good friend the Wilson’s Plover. I believe Wilson, (yes, we have that kind of relationship) has been our first bird of the competition since 2010. I had been having migraines that made me sensitive to sunlight especially when the sun was setting. I had to wear sunglasses most of the day, adding an extra layer to my weird persona. Wilson’s thick bill and body shape makes it easy to identify even with the shades. I kept up with the checklist so people with eyes could see things. It was 4:59pm and Evan was sent over so we could count my dear, Wilson. It was finally time for the competition. I immediately crossed off Wilson’s Plover from the list. You wouldn’t think that putting an “x” down on a piece of paper would give me an adrenaline rush, but it does. Willet, Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Common Tern, Forster’s Tern, Caspian Tern, Least Tern, and Black Scoter soon followed after it. Once we saw everything we could, we ran back to the van. Evan suggested that we run everywhere earlier and I dismissed it with a chuckle, but here we were, running everywhere. It is impressive when you are carrying binoculars, cameras, and a scope. It is even more impressive when you are living on DayQuil and Patrick has a broken arm.

The Team on South Beach

The Team on South Beach

We made a few more stops on Jekyll Island to get Black-crowned Nightheron, Yellow-crowned Nightheron, Short-billed Dowitcher, Long-billed Dowitcher, Painted Bunting, Black-and-White Warbler, and a few other species. Then we headed to Andrews Causeway to pick up Red-breasted Meganser and Clapper Rail.

Our next stop was Altamaha WMA. We saw Black-bellied Whistling-ducks, Black-necked Stilts, Mottled Duck, American Bittern, Least Bittern, and Soras. We all great looks at the Soras and bitterns, even me with my ridiculous sunglasses. We encountered another team. As we passed them Angus leaned over to Patrick and asked, “That’s makes 96, right?” The other team awkwardly smiled and walked away. The funny part is when Angus made that joke we at least had 90 species. As the evening progressed we heard the metallic “peent” of the Common Nighthawk and the distinctive growl of our stomachs.

After dinner, we went to Paulk’s Pasture in Brunswick. We got amazing looks at a red phase Eastern Screech Owl. Then we took a trip to YBC founder Tim Keyes’ house. He reported a Great-horned Owl with chicks in his backyard a few days before the competition. So, we rolled up to his house at about 10pm, like normal people do. We walked toward the back of his house, when Angus locked eyes with someone inside the window. It was none other than Angus’ own father. That could have been awkward. Angus’ dad and Tim’s wife explained that the owl was about a block away in a park, and (critically) they did not call the police.

Eastern Screech Owl (Red phase)

Eastern Screech Owl (Red phase)

We stood looking at 2 fluffy, muppet-ity looking little Great Horned Owls. They were, dare I say it, cute. We started to head back to Darien, and that was when the punch drunkenness started to set in. Various bird related raps, dubstep noises, owl impressions, mock podcasts, and other weird events occurred on the way. We arrived in Darien looking the Barn Owl boxes that had been placed there. We had no luck with the Barn Owls, but I learned an important life lesson. Sometimes, at 1am, after a hard day’s work, you just want to chase opossums. After the opossums were sufficiently chased, we headed back to Altamaha WMA. We got Barred Owl on the road back and we got out of the car `to look at it. Then I learned that some of the team had problems with tomorrow ‘s route. So at 2am we restructured the route, and without a voice I somehow convinced those with doubts that we didn’t need to stay the coast and should go to middle Georgia where we can get more diverse species. With that taken care of, we settled in to get 2 hours of sleep at the check station with a total of 96 species.

Barred Owl chicks

Barred Owl chicks

After we “slept” we packed up and headed for the road. We drove until we got to Glennville. We stopped because we were going 55 mph and Patrick, who was sitting in the back of the van which had tinted windows, saw white markings on a dove on a wire over an onion field. Sure enough, it was a White-winged Dove just as Patrick suspected. There was much rejoicing!

White-winged Dove

White-winged Dove

Our next stop was the Nongame office at Rum Creek. We saw Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Yellow-throated Vireo, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and Cape May Warblers. Then we proceeded to the MARSH Project. Swainson’s Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, and Yellow-breasted Chat were present at the Project.

We headed to Piedmont Natural Wildlife Refuge, a good location to get Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Bachman’s Sparrow. We got Bachman’s Sparrow, but we did not get the woodpecker. We also got Cliff Swallows and Eastern Wood-pewees. Then we headed to Charlie Elliot Wildlife Center. We picked up Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, and White-crowned Sparrow. Sadly, a tragedy befell the team. We preformed an R&B love song about a Bobwhite Quail trying to protect his nest. It was never recorded.

We entered the banquet with 156 species as our grand total. We had broken the previous record for the Youth Birding Competition! To make things even better, Angus had won the t-shirt contest had his painting of a Yellow-rumped Warbler plastered across everyone’s chest. Rosemary, won first place in the high school division for her painting of a Short-eared Owl. We were even part of a promotional video! Well, they are probably part of a promotional video. I was probably edited out for sounding like a choking goose.

Angus accepting the grand prize.

Angus accepting the grand prize.

Rosemary accepting her award.

Rosemary accepting her award.

We waited at our table anxiously awaiting the results of the competition. Angus had heard rumors that another team had 161 species, but I was skeptical. We were in 2nd place. The other team really did have 161. Initially I was disappointed. How could they get so lucky? We worked so hard! It was worth it though. The fun car trips, the awesome birds, and the great weekend with friends, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I think we went 5 minutes before we were talking about how we can make next year better. It looks like 2015 will be another year of Kestrel Krossing.

(Left to right) Patrick, Angus, Evan, Eddie (My father and mentor of the team), and me!

(Left to right) Patrick, Angus, Evan, Eddie (My father and mentor of the team), and me!

 

Kestrel Adventures

I recently helped out with Southeastern Kestrel banding. We band the kestrels as fledglings right out of their box.

 

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Kestrel box

 

First, we put a camera on a pole in the box.

First, we put a camera on a pole in the box.

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Then, we see if anyone is home.

Then, we see if anyone is home.

The kestrel was less than enthused to have visitors.

The kestrel was less than enthused to have visitors.

We brought the kestrel down and started to process it. It was a male, he weighed 122 grams, and he was approximately 25 days old.

Banding the kestrel.

Banding the kestrel. Band number: 1783-90119.

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We also nicknamed the bird Ivan, because of its aggressive nature. Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68XLUY9fGvY

See?

See?

I can be tough too.

I can be tough too.

 

Here is a good a look at the tomial tooth,  a sharp triangular-shaped ridge on the outer edges of the upper mandible. They use this to kill prey quickly, by biting their necks and severing the vertebrae.

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Also his fearsome talons.

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Then it was time to put little Ivan back up in his box.

 

 

 

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At the next box we weren’t expecting anything.  The only chick that was found there was presumed dead, but we when we checked it was very much alive. The only logical explanation is that we have a zombie on our hands.

Two day old chick.

Two day old chick.

At the following box we had two tenants who were a little more curious about what we were doing.

Gray phase Eastern Screech Owl chick.

Eastern Screech Owl chick.

 

Sleeping Screech Owls.

Sleeping Screech Owls.

 

Our final box had to bee the worst!

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Special thanks to Ashley for taking me out to help him! Support Nongame!

 

Habitat Restoration

I helped with a project at Panola Mountain State Park to plant native grasses in old farmland. I have collected seeds before, but this was my first time planting them!

 

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Phase 1

Phase 2

Phase 2

We were planting Brown Indian Grass, but there were other interesting plant species as well!

Dwarf Sumac (Rhus Mihauxii) ENDANGERED

Dwarf Sumac (Rhus Michauxii) ENDANGERED

Gammagrass (Male)

Gammagrass (Male)

Gammagrass (Female)

Gammagrass (Female)

We were planting an area plowed by a tractor. The seeds don’t need to be submerged just placed on the surface. Nature will do the rest!

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We were each assigned a square in the field.

We each had a pillowcase full of seeds collected by previous volunteers.

We each had a pillowcase full of seeds collected by previous volunteers.

Brown Indian Grass

Brown Indian Grass

We were tasked to use half of our pillowcase to cover one plot, then the other half for a different plot.

Sowing seeds!

Sowing seeds!

We successfully completed our task! These events are opened to the public so if this activity interests you please visit: http://gastateparks.org/PanolaMountain