Thursday, April 18, 2013

White Petals in the Breeze: White-tailed Kites

Douglas County, Oregon -- March 2013
I’m on a hilltop on the Mildred Kanipe Ranch, waiting.  Waiting.  Mildred loved this land.  She grew up on the homestead, never married, and ranched here all her life.  She referred to herself as the only son her father ever had.  Her sister choose a more normal pursuit and became a school teacher.  

Mildred bought a piece of land near her father’s when she was only 18.  Later she wanted to join the two properties.  In order to pay for the land which would join the two, she ran a dairy for eight years.  ... “Let me tell you, don’t ever get a dairy, unless you want to work yourself to death.  Because it don’t make any difference.  If you died, you’d have to get up and milk those cows.  They got to be milked every morning and every night.  And 365 days a year.  And 366 on leap year.”  I can almost hear her chuckling over that last comment.

Mildred died in 1983.   She gave her land, almost 1100 acres, to the Douglas Country Parks with stipulations that ranching could continue with other stipulations designed to protect the land and the native wildlife. ... and for people to enjoy.  She also instructed that she be buried in her overalls, on her side.   Near the old farmhouse a white picket fence surrounds her simple grave.

There is more about Mildred on this website:  If you go to the link, be sure to click on:  “Read an article published in MS Magazine 1982”

So today I sit on this hilltop and think about Mildred and the land she loved.  Mostly I’m surrounded by unkept pasture dotted with lichen festooned English hawthorn -- the bane of this area.  Farther off are a few large, open-grown oaks and scattered clumps of woodlands.  Peacocks squawk down at the homestead.  It is strutting season for them.  The peacocks will be shimmering, shaking, and fanning those glorious tails.  The peahens pretend to look unimpressed.  

Near me rises a dense island of relatively young Douglas fir, about 50 feet tall.  A pair of white-tailed kites perch in the tippy tops of the fir.  They preen.  They stretch. Occasionally I hear, “Kip, kip,...”  Is it the female calling the male over?  I hope.  That is what I’m here for.  

I suspect the it is the female on the left perch, a sturdier, crooked tree tip.  The second kite perches on a flexible tree top.  Just a little gust of breeze bobs him about.  When he spreads his wings to catch his balance, I get hopeful.  Will he join her?  No, he is just hanging on.  

Chorus frogs call in a nearby ravine, a nuthatch’s nasal song drifts from within the Douglas firs, a pair of noisy ravens fly past.  Waiting here is pleasant duty.  The ground is damp and full of last year’s dried weeds and this year’s green grass.  To the south, snow speckles the top of Mt. Scott.  A rich garden of mosses and lichens grow on an ancient fence post near me.  Vole tunnels meander throughout in the overgrown grass .... good habitat for feeding the kites.

I’ve been nearly half an hour when the “Kip, Kip” calls become more insistent.  The calls remind me of a female osprey we once watched on her nest.  No eggs in the osprey nest.  The female started calling persistently; the male flew in, copulated, then left.  Twenty minutes later the whole process repeated -- three times an hour for two hours and then we left.  It was an eyeopener for me.  As the daughter of prairie chicken biologists I got the impression the hen visited the booming ground once or twice per season.  In recent years I’ve come to realize some birds are far more sexually active than that.  Wood ducks copulate off and on all winter.  I’m not sure when the kites plan to nest, but I do know they were copulating two weeks ago when we were here.   

Both birds are calling!  The male lifts up and swings over to the female still perched on her bent over tree top.  He floats down like a white petal drifting in the breeze.  Kites are beautiful.  Gleaming white feathers against a grey sky.  His yellow feet are balled.  Very gently he settles on her back, her tail goes up and twists one way while his twists the other.  All too soon he is on his way.  She remains tail up for a moment while he flies past me and on to the open valley to the west. 

I settle in to wait some more.  Sometimes the kite hunts in the field I’m sitting in, but not now.  I’m going to stay near her rather than hiking over the rise to where he probably is hunting.  He likes a spot about half a mile away.  Kites are beautiful while they hunt.  They hover in one spot after another while the watching for a vole below.  When prey is spotted they cock their wings back and float down.  

While I wait the clouds have thickened.  Stillness seeps in as if spring is stepping back and allowing damp, grey winter back in.  The female kite is quiet.  I brought camera and notebook with me, but not a sketchbook.  I can keep my eye on my subject and take notes, but as soon as I start sketching I don’t look up often enough.  

The male kite has captured a vole and is flying back to give it to his mate.  They transfer the vole midair.

Mildred would have been tickled to see the kites.  I doubt if she ever saw one.  They were seldom seen when we moved here 30 years ago.  I bet she would have thought they are as pretty as her peacocks.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Watching Egrets

Plat I, Douglas County, Oregon

My sketches and notes come from early winter.  I'm finally finding a little time for catch up!  Here are my notes and sketches from wonderful times watching our local egrets foraging.

Late afternoon sun glows on fishing egrets, giving a warmth to their whiteness.  Often their necks stretch straight.  One pauses; looking; waiting for motion beneath the water.  Suddenly he turns, cocks his head, and freezes.  Relaxes.  

Out goes his neck!  Head plunges into the water.  Nothing.  He gathers himself, waits for the water to still and watches.  

Splat! This time he has a fish about four inches long, maybe a perch.  He deftly flicks his catch into the air, re-grabbing it head first.  An easy swallow.  The lumps quickly travels his long, slender neck.

The water soon stills again.  The egret’s reflection barely ripples as he slowly stalks, then pauses.  
Splat!  This time the egret comes up with a small crayfish.  This lump also slides easily.

After fishing this shallow bay for fifteen minutes he waits longer between opportunities.  He flies 50 years to the nearby mud flat and preens a few minutes.  Not for long.  Long careful strides as he eases back into the same bay.  

The sun is just slipping behind the hill, giving a lavender cast to the sky and the water.  His feathers, no longer warm and sunny, now harmonize with the grays and lavenders.  

So many fish!  Most of his prey is small, some very small.  He must have caught a least a dozen little fish while we watch.  Some were just tidbits ... and one crayfish.

As dusk falls the several killdeer have positioned themselves scattered along the edge of the shoreline.  It was their reflections I noticed.  The birds blend into the mud.  Our egret has finished fishing.  He flies to the vast expanse of mud and joins other egrets off in the distance.