July 28, 2008

Wild Goose Chase

Several weeks ago, my dad sent me an e-mail inviting me to join him for a day of goose banding with Utah Division of Wildlife employees.

What is goose banding? And, why would I want to do it?

Well, I can answer the first question. But the second will remain a mystery to all of us, especially my husband.

Each summer, between mid-June and late July, Canada geese shed and re-grow their outer wing feathers, also known as primaries. During this four- to five-week molting process, geese cannot fly. This flightless period presents the perfect opportunity for biologists to catch the geese and place a small metal band on one of their legs (see picture). The bands have unique numbers etched on them, which will help wildlife experts years from now learn about any geese that are caught, killed, or found dead. Basically, a biologist could trap one of these geese two years from now in Canada and by looking up the number on its band find out that it is a 3-year-old male born in Utah.

There are several methods used by the Division to catch geese during the molt, but I was invited for an especially exciting day, when the geese are chased down by airboats in shallow water (we’re talking two feet). The geese dive to get away, but by hanging off the edge of the airboat you can basically scoop the geese right out of the water.

It’s sort of like COPS, but with birds.

How could I pass that up? So, I took the day off work, got up early, and met my parents for a day at the marshes just outside of Corinne, Utah. When I got there, I discovered that I wasn’t the only son or daughter invited by a Division employee—but I was the only one over the age of 13. This bird stuff can be tough on the ego at times.

My embarrassment subsided a little, though, as soon as we took off from the shore. The day was absolutely gorgeous, and seeing the marsh from an airboat was spectacular. We flew by avocets, stilts, herons, and grebes in our search of the geese. Actually catching a goose took some practice, though. Hanging off the airboat, I consistently managed to touch the birds, but I lacked the nerve to get a really good grip on one. I was terrified of hurting one and nervous about falling off the boat. But after watching Seth, a 6th-grader, handle geese that were almost as big as him, I realized I needed to man up.

With a little practice, I soon was hauling 6-pound geese out of the water. I got smacked in the face several times by flapping wings, but the geese and I seemed to survive it all without any major injury. The only clip I could manage to post is a little long, but you can get the picture within the first minute or so. (Thanks to Timothy for figuring all of this stuff out for me.)

Once our boat’s crates were full of geese, we headed toward shore where the geese had a couple more indignities in store—sexing and banding.

Sexing is almost as dirty as it sounds. Basically, Division employees flip the geese over, hold them between their legs, and then turn their cloaca inside out. Now, surprisingly we haven’t gotten into the cloaca on Bird of the Week yet, considering how much we talk about bird sex. The cloaca is basically a multi-purpose organ, used to poop, have sex, and lay eggs. For birds like Canada geese, which do not differ in gender by color or size, you have to actually look at the small sex organs located within the cloaca to determine whether they are male or female. A few helpful Division employees tried to show me the difference between a goose clitoris and a goose penis, but to be honest with you, they all looked the same to me.

Once a goose’s age and sex were determined and a band was placed on its leg, it was released back into the marsh. I wasn’t surprised to see a few geese hang back to honk their disapproval at the lot of us. Don’t get me wrong, banding serves a real scientific purpose and can help determine all sorts of information that ultimately helps birds. But you put yourself in their situation for a minute, and you can’t help but feel a little sorry for them.

If it makes you or the geese feel any better, I suffered my own indignities on the trip:
First, there was the whole "30-year-old kid with a bunch of actual kids" thing to contend with.
Second, the video of me catching geese can only be described as extremely unflattering. Really, no woman should be filmed with her butt as the primary focus, unless she is paid adult-industry wages to do so. (Being willing to post this video proves that I love birds a lot).
Third, I quickly discovered why it was pretty much all men and a few pre-adolescent girls doing the capturing when I looked down to discover my thin t-shirt was completely soaked and sticking to every part of my body.
Finally, if that weren’t bad enough, I brought a second shirt to change into after banding, but realized too late that it didn’t really work with a still-wet bra. I attended a post-banding lunch with my new Division friends with a look that can only be described as "lactating."

And now, I will end this very long blog with a couple of quick facts about Canada geese:

Fact: The correct name is Canada goose, not Canadian goose. Not sure why this is the case, but you will be corrected by obnoxious editors and bird aficionados if you say or write it incorrectly.
Fact: Canada geese feed on a variety of plant material, including grass and grains, as well as the junk people throw out to them in city parks.
Fact: Canada geese have become an increasing nuisance in cities. Many of them have stopped migrating and make permanent homes in city parks and golf courses, where they leave behind a lot of waste. (Which you now know comes from their cloaca!)
Fact: Canada geese take on child-rearing in a sort of hippie, communal way. It is quite common for adults geese to gather up all of the hatched goslings into one big group and help each other raise the young.

This has been Your BOTW.

P.S. Thanks to all the people who patiently waited for me to get the hang of catching geese, showed me the art of "sexing", and tried to ignore my sole entry in the goose-banding wet t-shirt contest.

July 26, 2008

For the Birds

See, even brilliant animators and computer geniuses at Pixar think birds are cool.

July 13, 2008

Bear River Evening

I found a gorgeous video on birdcinema.com. It was taken one evening at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in northern Utah. It's pretty amazing to realize the number of bird species that live or land in our inland state each year because of the Great Salt Lake.

The video is a little fuzzy as it's almost dark, but the sounds of thousands of birds feeding and communicating is just spectacular. I especially loved the eerie footage of the barn owl hunting (it looks like a ghost) and the Western grebe toting its chick on its back. You can't watch a video like this and not appreciate the beauty of birds! I had trouble embedding the video for some reason, but you can click here to view it directly on the Bird Cinema site. I promise it's worth opening a new window in your browser.

July 9, 2008

Who…who...who…is old?



Those are the sounds of my 30-year-old bones, people.

Yes, this week I left behind my wild and crazy 20s and joined the ranks of the sort of old. I realize that 30 is not ancient, and, if I’m honest, my 20s were never all that wild or crazy. But, I still can’t help but feel that life has changed. I rarely get ID'd anymore. I watch sports and am consistently shocked to realize that the athletes are YEARS younger than me. And Tums are no longer a foreign product.

It’s not over the hill, but it’s 100 percent in the adult world. Yikes.

Of course, there are some good things about being older. I can rent a car without too much hassle. I'm closer to fitting the market profile of Audubon Society and NPR members. And, there’s the whole wiser thing, right?

So in the spirit of acceptance for this, my fourth decade of life, I thought I’d highlight a bird that is often referred to as old and wise, but is also awesome.

Your BOTW is the Great Horned Owl.

Fact: The great horned owl typically has a brown and gray body with dark barring. It can be identified by its bright white throat. It has an orange facial disk with bright yellow eyes and a dark bill.
Fact: The great horned owl is named for its big ear tufts, which are widely spaced on its head.
Fact: The feathery ear tufts don’t cover actual horns (Do I need to specify that? You can never be too sure with this group.) They also aren’t actual ears. But I think we can all agree that they’re cool looking!
Fact: The great horned owl has exceptional night vision, but its hearing is even better. Its facial disk helps direct the slightest sounds to its ears.
Fact: The great horned owl has a wingspan ranging from 3 ½ feet to nearly 5 feet! Standing, it is almost two feet tall. Females are generally 10 to 20 percent bigger than the males.
Fact: The great horned owl is a bit of a bad ass.
Fact: It can take prey that weighs three times more than itself. It kills using its incredibly strong talons to sever the spinal cord of the prey in one quick squeeze. (I know I sound like Napoleon Dynamite.)

Fact: The great horned owl generally hunts at night and is particularly effective because it flies so quietly.
Fact: The great horned owl hunts rodents and rabbits, but is also known to take porcupines, raccoons, water birds, other owls, and even the occasional miniature pony. (Maybe not on that last one.) It is also the only animal known to regularly eat skunks.
Fact: Pet lovers beware. Great horned owls will be happy to take Fluffy or Roxy if given the opportunity.
Fact: The great horned owl will often eat its prey whole, crushing bones with its beak. Several hours after a meal, it will hawk up little black pellets of indigestible parts as well as the occasional entire skull. An owl can be found by spotting its pellets on the ground around a tree. Look up and you’ll often see the owl roosting silently above your head.
Fact: Great horned owls are extremely territorial when nesting. They will dive at your head with those nasty talons if they see you as a threat.
Fact: Speaking of nesting, great horned owls do not build their own nests. They take over abandoned nests made by hawks, crows, and other birds, and generally raise one to three owlets together.
Fact: Despite being bad asses (or maybe because of it), great horned owls often get mobbed by American crows. Crows really don’t like great horned owls roosting in their area, and when they find one they will gather up a big group and harass it until it moves on to quieter territory. See video.

Fact: Native Americans in the Sierras believed that great horned owls captured the souls of the dead to take to the underworld. So, now that I'm nearly over the hill, I should probably watch out for that.

This has been Your BOTW.

July 4, 2008

Piedmont Bird Callers on Letterman

Bird calls and Letterman, two of my favorite things!
If you watch all the way to the end, you'll hear that Dave likes great blue herons. This makes me strangely happy.

July 2, 2008

I Got the Blues

Before we get started, let me apologize to all seven of my loyal readers. I realize that I set up the Your BOTW blog with much fanfare and then disappeared for two weeks with not a single post. A tad bit rude. In my defense, though, I:

A. Went on a family trip to Yellowstone

Here we all are at a "bear jam."

B. Was struck down by an embarrassing skin disease caught while at Yellowstone (from a hot tub, grossly enough)

C. Served as matron of honor at the wedding of the season (while still suffering from said embarrassing skin disease)

Me at the wedding trying to look "matronly" with my husband.

It was a crazy couple of weeks. So, please forgive me (and feel a slight bit of pity for me). Now, back to birds.

While at Yellowstone, I was reminded of one of my all-time favorite birds. I saw this bird throughout the park, and proudly watched as its startling color and sweet voice caught the attention of even non-birding folks. And, when you’re competing for attention with wolves, bison, bears, geysers, and German tourists—that’s saying something.

Your BOTW is the mountain bluebird.

Photo Credit: Mac Knight

Fact: Mountain bluebirds are blue, brilliant blue. (The males, anyway.) When I look at them in my binoculars, I can’t help but think of Crayola words: Azure, Cerulean, Pacific, Indigo, Denim. Seriously stunning.
Fact: A male mountain bluebird is bright blue across its back, head, wings, and tail. The rest of its body is a slightly more muted blue. A female mountain bluebird is a brownish-blue overall. It’s pretty, but the male steals the show. (You regular BOTW readers should not be surprised by this.) See the video below. It's not super exciting, but if you watch long enough, you’ll see both the male and the female.

Mountain bluebirds can be found throughout the Western states, in high meadows, ranchlands, and even the occasional golf course.
Fact: The first pair of mountain bluebirds I saw in Yellowstone were copulating (that’s having sex, Patrick) over one of the Fountain Paint Pots. I felt a bit intrusive watching them, actually. Once satiated, they managed to charm a host of tourists (with whom I was happy to share my binoculars).
Fact: Speaking of sex, mountain bluebirds tend to be monogamous throughout the breeding season. (Although both sexes are known to do a little sneaking around if given the chance.)
Fact: Mountain bluebirds are cavity nesters, meaning they nest in holes they find in trees, buildings, and banks. Just the right cavity can be hard to come by, though, so more and more often they are making nests in manmade nest boxes.
Fact: Whether nesting in a natural cavity or a nest box, the female mountain bluebird gathers up dry grass, pine needles, dry bark, and even horsehair to construct a proper nest within the cavity.
Fact: Males mountain bluebirds rarely help in this nest construction. Oddly enough, they will pick up nesting materials while following their mate around, but they always drop it before reaching the nest.
Fact: Female mountain bluebirds get their revenge once the babies hatch, though. The first few weeks, the male is allowed to bring food to the nest, but the female will not allow him to feed or touch the hatchlings.
Fact: Mountain bluebirds eat mostly bugs (and occasional berries). They typically hunt insects and worms from a perch like a fencepost or tree limb. They are also known to hover above the ground before diving to catch insects.

This has been Your BOTW.

P.S. Stay tuned for a full report on my exciting day of Goose Banding!!

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