Holiday Errands and Hungry Hawks

It’s the holiday season, which means the hustle and bustle around the city of Altoona is unbearable.  It would seem that drivers just decide to make up their own rules for the road when this time of year comes around.  So naturally, when I had some errands to run yesterday, I was out to get them done as quickly and painlessly as possible.  I had art-related work to get done which doubled as a Christmas gift buying trip.

My trip out involved getting a half dozen prints of my work matted and ready for pick up, and making some prints of an Eastern Screech Owl pen and ink that I’ve had stashed away for a few months:

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There has been an Eastern Screech Owl making random appearances in our yard locally.  We’ve never seen him or her, but we’ve certainly heard the whinnying calls from the arborvitae and eastern hemlock trees outside.  I’m sure the fact that we have so many birdfeeders has contributed to the rodent population – with which the owls and birds of prey are willing to help remedy.

I haven’t seen the sick House Finches that have been showing up around the yard.  We took our feeders down and soaked them in bleach water. (1 part bleach, 9 parts water) to kill any hint of the finch disease that may linger on the feeders to spread to other House Finches.   Once thoroughly dry, we put new seed in the feeders and hung them up again. Hopefully this helps slow the disease down, but it’s clear that this is an ongoing problem in the Eastern U.S.  Perhaps if mankind didn’t capture these birds out west and interbreed them as “Hollywood Finches” they wouldn’t be so susceptible to a disease that normally only affects poultry.  I am reporting my findings to Cornell Lab of Ornithology and hope to become part of their citizen science program. Any way I can contribute to bird conservation and protection, I will.

It’s been a good week for my trout art.  I’ve sold three matted prints including two full color rainbow trout prints and a pen and ink of one hell of a ‘lunker’ brown trout on a streamer. (A streamer is a long fly lure used to mimic a baitfish or aquatic insect.)

The two paintings with green mats are my entries to last years Delaware Trout Stamp – which I did not so much as place in!! My skills have grown since then, however, and I greatly look forward to entering two pieces in the next contest – which starts pretty soon actually.  In addition to that I have compiled a hefty list of other stamp contests to participate in for 2015.  You can click on my trout art below for a better look at the art itself.

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The Cooper’s Hawk that has been visiting the yard for prey has made a successful kill.  I’m guessing the bird that was nabbed was either a sick house finch, a house sparrow (both of which are invasive and bullies) or a female cowbird (a parasite, but native bird, that lays its eggs in other birds nests – dooming their own chicks to plummet to the earth).  Either way, I’m okay with it.  All that remained in the yard was a beak and a pile of feathers- a troublesome bird has been removed – and now we won’t have a juvenile starving Cooper’s Hawk on our hands.  The circle of life!  Sometimes ugly, but always necessary.

Just say the hell away from my native birds, Mr. Cooper’s Hawk.  Please?

 

Art

Next year is looking pretty good already in terms of art exhibits and opportunities.  My career as a wildlife artist continues to grow, and the bigger it seems to get, the more food it requires!  Not literal food of course, I’m referring more to the spiritual nutrients we artists get when showing our work thru events and exhibitions! Ha!  I look forward to these in order to get my name out there, but also to brush elbows with some of our areas fine artists and possibly learn from them.

So far for 2015, I have seven group art exhibits marked, which is 7 opportunities to make new connections.  These group exhibitions are often big attractors – more so than a solo exhibit might be – which means my art will be exposed to a lot of people who may not know my name yet. And so, I have full intentions on making that list grow even more but I’m trying to find a healthy balance between exhibitions and art competitions.

Here’s to new successes!

Mondays Meanderings

I went out into the woods again yesterday, arriving sometime around 6:30 AM.  The ground was crispened by frost which made a quiet approach to my blind a challenging affair – to say the least.  On the parts of the ground where soil was exposed there were countless “ice sprouts” that had been released as upheavals of finely frozen ice.  Fine strings of ice curving up and outward.  There was no shortage of the formations, so I took my boot and pushed one over.  They fell over and were so light in weight that the breeze threatened to blow them around.  Nature never fails to amaze me.  It’s amazing what you can find if you really look closely.

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Arriving at my blind in darkness,  I closed my eyes and snuggled down into my double-layered coats and warm pockets.  My crocheted hat was doubled by a store bought hat underneath it.  Yes, that’s right folks – Michael likes to be warm;  double socks, insulated boots, wool gloves, scarf, flannel, double coats, double hats.  In my cozy state, sitting in the darkness I began to doze off in the peace and serenity of the slowly waking forest.

The sun rises after 7 AM at this time of year, and on this particular morning it didn’t disappoint.  One of the things I love about this time of year are dramatic sunrises and sunsets!  I stared up at the sky, enthralled by the gentle blue and pink hues.

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I pondered a bit about this old hollow, and how nice it would be if I actually owned it all.  How much it would mean to me!  Every area of the hollow has a story to tell, and has been a part of my life.  Where did all the time go?  All these years that have passed, I swear I didn’t take them for granted – but I  didn’t expect this kind of a turn out for my Pap’s health either.  Now, I make occasional visits to my Pap’s old deer blind where I revel in memories and tearfully relive the experience of crafting this blind together, as a group, with dad, uncle, a few cousins, and pap.  I can even remember the smell of the leaves that day.  Now, my pap sits in a home, no jokes or calling me “Charlie Brown” like he used to.  It’s a hard pill to swallow.  Sometimes I think I’d give anything to sit with my pap and have a normal conversation again.  Maybe then we could relive some of the “good ol’ days”.  I miss it.

About the time it was light enough to see well, a yearling buck appeared coming out of a ravine that lies to the left of my blind.  With small spiked antlers jutting from his head, he walked – occasionally stopping to nibble on some fallen fox grape, acorns, or beech nuts. He paused when he noticed my outline, but I remained motionless.  With a flick of his ear, he resumed his normal activities before disappearing behind a stand of eastern hemlock.

Later that day, I found more bear scat – which appeared to be a month or more old.  I also saw claw markings on a number of other logs that were strewn along an old overgrown logging road some 400 yards from that point.  There again, I found myself wanting to see the culprit – only to realize what that would entail and asking myself if I was crazy!

Oh – btw! Here is a black bear ink sketch I did awhile back.  It’s not the best, but it’s a good indicator of where my imagination had taken me and my pen:

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I found the skull of a cat down by the creek edge of the landing. (The landing is a flat, open, grassy area established in the bottom of the hollow, joined to the main road by an old unused logging road.)  The skull could’ve easily been that of a Bobcat, a feline predator that I know makes home here.  I’ve seen the tracks of bobcats on snow-covered logs that cross the creek, and another time I saw where he was hunting for food last year.  His tracks lead to various openings in the powdery snow which were created by clusters of folded grass, leaves, and branches.  His tracks lead to each hole, one by one he would stop, rest, and listen.  His ears, eyes, and whiskers undoubtedly on alert, I’m sure the bobcat had an advantage here.  Despite that, I found no indication of a kill or a squabble whatsoever.

In my hike yesterday I also came across a fawn skeleton only 30 yards from my blind, very close to some bear sign.  The victim was a young buck fawn who had white button “pedicles” where he would grow future antlers if he hadn’t fallen prey to one of the local carnivores.   His skeleton was clean, and pure white.  With Eastern Coyotes, Bobcats, and Black Bears roaming these woods regularly, there is no shortage of guesses on who did the eating here.  I studied the skeleton briefly, and it didn’t appear to have any trauma to the bones.  Also, most of the bones were piled together, rather than strewn through the woods – which kind of made me feel like this was a bobcat kill.  Cats are protective of their kill, clean bones thoroughly, and don’t feed in groups like coyotes.  I would think a pack of canine predators would have pieces of the skeleton strewn all about.  This is only a guess however.

It is not uncommon for a whitetail doe to have twins.  If this is the case, the fawns are separated and lay curled up and hiding in totally different locations.  I’m not sure if this deceased fawn had a sibling, but scenarios like this are why deer do what they do!  This keeps both fawns from being killed.

I decided to close out the day by staring up into the laurel just beyond where I had found the fawn.  A mature doe, followed by two smaller doe meandered through the brush on the deer trails before disappearing down into the ravine in which I had spied the spike buck earlier that day. Within a few moments the does reappeared from nowhere, heading back the way they came up the knoll into the laurel.  With them, a fourth deer – one I had not seen.  If it was a buck, it wasn’t very big, so with the waning light and my tired body, I started the trek back to my car a quarter of a mile uphill.

I’m beat!  Time to put all this inspiration to good use.

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The Red Bellied Visitor

I’m thrilled to have Red-bellied Woodpeckers back at our feeders.  For awhile, we had a pair, who disappeared abruptly a year and a half ago or more.  As I stood in my bathroom looking out the window to see the birds, I noticed the flashy red blaze of a Red-bellied Woodpecker’s nape!  We love having these guys around!  He hung on the suet cake feeder, skillfully prying bits of suet from between the openings.  In regular intervals he would look up and around for danger as I spied down from the window.  I took a quick shot through the window just in case I didn’t see him again.

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This handsome fella was eating up for the cold weather ahead.
Red-bellied Woodpecker (male)

After taking these photos, I ran down the stairs and snuck outside to take another photo.  I was moving so slowly so as not to squeak one of the porch floorboards when I glanced up and noticed him fly away in a hurry!  Suddenly, hordes of sparrows and finches lifted off the feeders and scattered abroad.  Behind them, a Cooper’s Hawk who cunningly zipped between trees after the fleeing birds, cutting through the damp air like a knife! He was CLEARLY going for Mr. Woodpecker.

He missed.  The woodpecker was out of sight in an instant.

Perched in a leafless deciduous tree in my neighbors yard, the hawk glanced at me between the trees and blinked.  He shook his feathers, almost as if out of frustration with the end result, and then tore off between the houses across the back alley.  In his haste, he completely overlooked a diseased House Finch who is half-blind feeding at one of our feeders during the whole ordeal!

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He would flap, flap, flap — then glide.  Flap, flap — glide.  This is typical for Cooper’s Hawks, and I use this tool to identify them at a distance all the time.  Given the large amount of birds at my feeders, it is only natural that the bird-preying accipiter hawks such as Cooper’s would thrive in our area.  I will say however that I pay a great deal of attention to my feeders but have never actually seen the hawk successfully grab a single bird from a single one!

The primary reason is the dense cover that surrounds the feeder areas.  Within the blink of an eye [and there are usually many eyes to spot danger coming] many birds will flee to the center of the tree, close to the trunk, to avoid the hungry Cooper’s Hawk who’s swirling about outside.  We have Eastern Hemlock, Arborvitae, Rhododendron,  Box Wood Bush, and dense shrubs along our white picket fence.

Dense cover is especially good news for our Northern Cardinals, who are known to be slow fliers who do best in brushy areas with plenty of places to hide.  In the open, few birds challenge the Cooper’s Hawk.  Not a sparrow, finch, cardinal, or robin would risk fleeing in the open.  Perhaps our pigeons and mourning doves who are among the swiftest birds at the feeders.  Sometimes the Rock Doves (pigeons) almost seem to mock the Cooper’s Hawk flying at great speeds and changing directions suddenly in the distance, ever mindful of his presence.   A meal that size would really be great, but there is a lot of work involved in a chase like that.

Due to all the cover, our hawk seems to prefer to swing around the house or between the houses to take the clamoring birds by surprise.  I’ve seen him arc over the house, under the bough of our grandfather oak, and then swing up over the garage and back down after prey.  With his long wedge shaped tail, and rounded broad wings he is adept at making sharp turns and flying through trees after small birds.

I hope to get a better picture of one of the hawks.  We have both juvenile and adult Cooper’s in the neighborhood.  They nest a quarter mile up the road near Keith’s Jr. High ball field in a stand of gigantic Eastern White Pine.  At this time of year however, their presence is unpredictable and usually – so fleeting – that you have no chance for a shot.  Here’s hoping!

Black Bear

As a general rule, every black bear I’ve ever come across has tripped over themselves to get away from me as fast as possible.  They are a beautiful animal, but one that I definitely do fear as sick, injured, weakened, old, and un-shy bears can pose a serious threat.  Running at up to 35 miles per hour for bursts, a fleeing person is not going to get very far if a bear would want to eat him or her.  And no matter how infrequent black bear attacks are, I’m not one to play Russian roulette with my luck, either! I do however, find them fascinating enough to use in my paintings.  I find them beautiful and intriguing, even if at a distance.  The painting below was done recently to add some more variety to my portfolio.  I want to do another bear painting already!  Titled “Club Berry Bruin”, it was meant to represent a bear that was filling up on Hercules Club Tree berries (club berries) along a fencerow near Bald Eagle, Pennsylvania.

Painting by blog author, and artist Michael Kensinger.
Painting by blog author, and artist Michael Kensinger.

I regularly have nightmares of being hunted by bears.  Particularly black bears, as it is the only variety that lives in Pennsylvania.  And what’s more?  Our black bears are some of the biggest of the species in the world.  A short 20 minute drive from my home a male black bear weighing over 600 lbs was recently hit by a car.  All this, coupled with the knowledge of New Jersey’s first ever resident to be mauled by a boar (male) has added to my caution.

After reading a couple articles on the topic, I noticed one that mentioned the victim, a 22 year old man, was warned (along with a handful of friends) about the bear’s weird behavior down the trail.  After ignoring the warnings, the victim managed to get some photos of the bear on his cellphone before the bear killed him.   The lesson here?  Bears don’t give a DAMN about “selfies” and cell phone photos.  If you are warned a bear is acting rather odd, and trusting – the last thing you should be doing is approaching it for a photo!!

My prayers and condolences are with this persons family.  I can’t imagine what a struggle it would be to know a loved one perished in such a way.

And so, with that said – I have been on edge while hunting for myself in my own forested haunts – to say the least.  The reason is simple; I stumbled onto 3 points of bear sign in a few hundred yard radius of my ground blind yesterday.  The first tell-tale sign was a tore-up old tree fall that had bark chewed and pried off, debris laying on the forest floor. The superfluous amount of trees downed by ice and storm over the years makes for a lovely dining experience for the bear.  Black bears are known for chewing up and tearing apart old dead logs and tree falls for the nutritious grubs and larvae inside. I’m sure the fiber probably helps a little too.    On the small patches of snow, I saw a few black pieces of fur from the bear itself.  Upon THAT discovery, I had immediate chills! There I was, standing at one of this bears prized dinner table and the fur hadn’t even blown off it!  Then, remembering I was backed with a Remington model 700, I had a boost in confidence.

The black bear likely returned to the area with a purpose.  Those who do not follow the law on the adjacent property had mortally wounded (but did not recover) an 8 point buck who lay dead, 100 yards from my grandfathers old tree stand.  The antlers of the deer were gnawed off by Mr. Porcupine, as well as the local gray, red, and fox squirrels.  The antlers are high in nutrition for rodents, and the meat – well, nothing goes to waste in the wild!  Part of me wants to go looking for the bears den, but the smarter part of me says I’m an idiot.

 

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Across the creek about 100 yards away I found scat which showed that the bear was feeding heavily on acorns and nuts, with a small amount of fur being found as well.  (Didn’t take photos of that, and you’re welcome.)  The scat was dry, and probably at least a week old or more.  I saw plenty of berry seeds, and with that I was done analyzing.  Southwest of the scat, I came across another sign; claw marks on an old dead snag that has been old and dead for as long as I’ve been hunting in this hollow:

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I hope you can see the claw markings on bark.  The holes are from a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – a woodpecker.   Perhaps the bear was sharpening his claws, or perhaps he was making an attempt on the life of the next tree over’s resident, the porcupine.

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This tree has been a porcupine den for a very long time.  I’m not sure if it’s being rehashed by other porcupines in the lineage, but it’s one of two dens that I know of in the hollow.  Porcupines are comical creatures that pack a punch with their quilled tails and bodies.  I don’t think they are usually worth the risk, given the infection, pain, and blindness that can occur with one of these armored tanks.  The droppings spread outside the door are a sign that it is still being used.  The tree you see fallen beside the hole entrance is the TOP of the tree that the bear was scratching on.  My mind of course wondered if perhaps the bear dug Mr. Porcupine out of his den or chased him up that tree.  Given that there were no stray quills or signs of a struggle – I’d say the porcupine survived the encounter and probably never came outside to find out what all the scratching noises were!

 

It’s hard to say where this black bear could be on a given day.  Perhaps he is hibernating already, coiled up in a makeshift den until spring arrives.  Or, perhaps he’s waiting for a full-on snow to lay first, building up with nutritional items to help pack on the weight.  Despite that I know he needs it to survive, I have no plans on helping him out with that personally!

 

 

Smiling Heart

Thanksgiving has come and gone.  Tim and I had a lovely dinner with my mom, great-grandmother, dad, brother, and his girlfriend.  I cherish those moments.  In life I have learned that we don’t all end up at the finish together.  It’s been a hard pill to swallow, coupled with facing my own mortality because I’ve turned 30 years old.  On the bright side, there is no doubt in my mind that BIG things are in my future.  Something tells me the 30’s will blow the 20’s right out of the water.  But that’s just a speculation.

 

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I saw a Brown Creeper in the woods yesterday.  I do a lot of birding here in Pennsylvania, but this is the first Brown Creeper I’ve been able to get a photo of, ever.  Notice the curved bill and long toe-nails when you click on the image and expand it.  These are a bird species adapted to life on the side of a tree.  They spiral around on the trunks, making distinct high pitched “tssseeeet tsseeeet” noises.  Alongside the thin “tsssseeeets” of the Golden-crowned Kinglet, it can be hard to distinguish.  Given that both species were feeding around my blind today, it made for an interesting morning.

 

Brown Creeper

I’ve had about half a dozen White-tail Deer pass the blind, most within 20 yards of me.  I could see the gleam of the sun sparkle in their eye as they slinked past my blind.  Three of the deer were small bucks, a one antlered spike, a button buck, and a 3 point.  All of these bucks are young and had the enthusiasm of a young adult – but lacked the skill to follow through.  The one antlered Spike acted like he wanted to pursue a small doe, but she was not receptive to his plea.  And, the moment she does come into heat, a more mature buck is likely to find her and drive away the young wannabes with a lowering of ears, and a stiff-legged side-ways walk.  It won’t take much, given the rather miniscule spike of an antler he has.

Snow Days

The first major snowstorm for central Pennsylvania has descended upon my home in Altoona.  It’s wet, and it’s heavy.

 

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Hordes of House Sparrows are clamoring at the feeder, alongside House Finches – two birds who are consistently being bullies.  I’ve gone out to ‘clap’ and have successfully dispersed their flock once.  If by success you mean taking numbers from a hundred or more, to about 10.  The Carolina Wren has been rather cheerful given the weather, and I saw him stiff-tailed at the trolley feeder on our garage.  The occasional Junco is spotted amidst the foray, hopping beneath the feeders and catching all the seed that gets knocked out of the feeders.  If I were a Cooper’s Hawk, now would be the most opportune time for an attack.  Low visibility, snowfall, and large numbers of clamoring birds are almost sure to attract him at some point.  In addition to the Cooper’s Hawk, we also have a Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk who hunts the neighborhood.  Songbirds are a little too elusive for him, but the fattened gray squirrels in our yard are a sure target.

Our arborvitae and row of Eastern Hemlocks are beautiful in the snow.  Unfortunately, the future is bleak for the hemlocks that house our feeders.  They all appear to be hit by the parasite that has been killing large numbers all across the region.  These trees are important.  They shade trout streams, prevent erosion, and are an important source of cover for many.  Ours are used as roost sites for a number of species of bird.  My partner and I intend on planting something to substitute them while they are still alive and usable by wildlife.

 

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As you can see by the photo above, Charlie didn’t may much mind to any of it.  All she knows is that it’s cold, it’s snowing, and that the sheets on the bed are much, much more appealing on a day like today.