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Snowy Owl

Recently Ellen and I were invited by a group called the Friends of the IBA (Important Bird Area) to look for Snowy Owls near Fort Edward, NY. This nonprofit group is working with farmers and other landowners to protect 2,000 acres of remaining grassland, which is critical for many endangered and threatened birds. So far they have been able to preserve over 300 acres of this vital habitat.

We discovered that Snowy Owls migrate from the arctic to the snow covered grasslands of the Northern US in years when food is scarce. They live on lemmings and mice and eat up to 1,600 in a single year. This is an important factor in keeping these highly reproductive rodents under control.

The Snowy Owl has been highly regarded throughout history. Our Paleolithic ancestors even left painted images on cave walls in Europe over 20,000 years ago.

We searched for several hours and were packing up to leave when this Owl flew out of a snowy field and landed on a telephone pole over our heads.

Like they say… success in birding depends on a combination of perseverance and luck.

Gray Jay – Canada’s National Bird?

Canada still hasn’t chosen a national bird and many people are pushing to make it the Gray Jay. I agree. They are cute, hardy and friendly. And, unlike other birds, they choose not to migrate when winter comes. Instead they brave the ice and snow; even nesting and raising chicks in spite of the freezing weather. Recently I was lucky to see several near Long Lake in the Adirondacks.

The secret to their survival is to cache bits of food under the loose bark of conifer trees. They can hide as many as 1,000 little food packets a day, and astonishingly remember where each one is. This is due to a highly developed hippocampus region in their brain. This gives them an unprecedented memory.

So the next time you are hiking in a northern boreal forest keep an eye open for this gregarious. hardy bird.

Recently Ellen and I had the opportunity to visit Costa Rica. We traveled with a Road Scholar group in what they described as, “Birding off the Beaten Path in Northern Costa Rica.”

Violet Sabrewing Hummingbird

They were right! We visited rain forests, Northern wetlands, Caribbean lowlands, and tropical dry forests. We were fortunate to see 242 new birds as well as many birds that migrate from our area to winter in Costa Rica.

It was enlightening to see how Costa Rica has set aside so much land to preserve critical habitats for endangered wildlife. And, at the same time, provide an active livelihood for so many people in the rural countryside.

Emerald Toucanet

The trip was exceptionally well organized and I highly recommend Road Scholar.

In search of the Phantom of the North

The Great Gray Owl is North America’s largest owl by height and wingspan. They are rarely seen, hence the name “Phantom”. They live in the boreal forests of North America, Scandinavia, and Northern Russia. Although rare in the Adirondacks, one was spotted in Keene. So one cold March afternoon we went searching for it.

We drove about two hours to the location of the last sighting. Luck was with us. Fortunately the Great Gray hunts in open areas at the forest’s edge and we arrived just in time to see it perched a quarter of a mile away in a small tree watching for voles and field mice in the snow.

We got our spotting scope and camera set up and managed to get a few pictures before it abruptly flew away. The Grey Owl’s camouflage pattern of light and dark grey blends perfectly with tree bark making it virtually invisible. We felt lucky to have been able to catch a brief glimpse of this magnificent owl before it disappeared into the frozen north woods

Wild Turkeys

Wild Turkeys have made a spectacular comeback in the Adirondack Mountains. When I moved here in the mid-1970s Wild Turkeys had been hunted out of existence. Now we often see them trooping through our yard in the summer followed by a brood of fuzzy young ones.

This winter a small flock of about six has discovered our bird feeders. They peck and scratch in the snow looking for dropped seeds. One enterprising male was even spotted standing on a snow bank, stretching up to pick seeds out of my “Squirrel-Proof” chickadee feeder. On cold days we toss an extra cup of seed and corn on the ground for them. They’ve learned to come running when they hear the door open.

Turkeys prefer to walk or run, but when threatened they can fly. The great whoosh of feathers when they take off is enough startle any would-by predators.

They are ground feeders, eating seeds, nuts, tender evergreen buds, and the occasional snail, salamander, or insect. They roost in trees at night, but nest on the ground with the females providing all the care for the young.

Although they look dark brown in the forest, when the sun hits them they blaze with metallic bronzes, greens, and gold. I’ve made Turkeys before and it’s a challenge to carve their fanned tails and extended wings. It’s especially tricky to capture the iridescence of their feathers. I’ve found brushing bronzing powders over the final nearly dry paint works the best. In the meantime, they put on a pretty good show during the long winter.

Snow Buntings

This week we saw a Snow Bunting as we drove through the beautiful Keene Valley in the Eastern Adirondacks. Like the Ross’s Gull, the Snow Bunting breeds in the high arctic where it nests in rock crevices lined with fur and feathers for warmth.

They winter as far south as the northern US, and are most often seen on grassy roadsides eating seeds and small insects. This is of a carving I did of a Snow Bunting in its subtle winter plumage. I don’t have a good photo of a Snow Bunting because we usually see them flying away as we drive. Snow Buntings in flight looks dazzlingly white earning them the nickname of Snowflakes.

Their breeding plumage is completely black and white. Surprisingly they don’t molt to make the change from winter to breeding plumage. As spring approaches they rub the tips of their feathers on the snow wearing away the brown surface color to reveal the pure black and white beneath.

It’s always a treat to see this little visitor from the far north.

Ross’s Gull Sighting 1-28-17

Ross’s Gull Sighting 1-28-17

On Saturday, January 28, Joan Collins, an Adirondack bird guide, invited us to look for the rarest bird in North American, the Ross’s Gull. This diminutive gull, not much larger than a Robin, breeds in Siberia, and is a rare visitor to Arctic Canada. One had been sighted along the Raquette River in Tupper Lake. Word went out on the Internet and avid birders dropped everything to race to the remote central Adirondacks.

We searched for a couple hours without success then decided to enjoy some of the other birds in the area such as the Barred Owl and the Gray Jay. As we drove south along the river a woman in our group caught a brief glimpse of a white bird landing on the ice next to a stretch of open water. There it was! a small pale gull, 200 yards away.

Soon over a hundred people arrived armed with huge telephoto lenses and spotting scopes. Many had traveled here from as far away as Georgia with the hope of sighting this bird. Two State Troopers showed up to see what the trouble was, and were astonished to find a bird was causing the traffic jam. After hearing Joan’s explanation they stopped trying to break up the group, and helped organize our cars on the shoulder of the road. It was my first experience with the world of extreme birders. Even though I was delighted to see such a rare bird I have to confess walking quietly in the woods is more my style.

Thank you to Joan for an exciting day of birding and to Scott Stoner Naturelogues for sharing a photo my small lens couldn’t capture.

(Photo Credit: Scott Stoner Naturelogues)

Happy Groundhog Day!

It’s February 2, 2017 or Groundhog Day. In the Adirondacks if you have half your firewood pile left on Groundhog Day you’re going to make it through the winter. Do you know how hard it is to have half your firewood left on February 2 when you’ve been burning it since October?

Luckily it’s been a fairly mild winter and we’re in good shape this year.

Groundhogs, or woodchucks as they’re known here, are fairly rare in the deep woods. But one year we had a handsome fellow set up housekeeping in our yard. He stayed all summer, and then disappeared in the fall. He especially loved eating the tender clover that grows in our lawn. We don’t use any pesticides or herbicides, and the deer, snowshoe hares and voles are welcome to eat as much as they want..

Before he left I made a carving of him and wanted to share it with you. Have a Happy Groundhog Day!

Gopher Tortoise


Birds are not the only wildlife on Sanibel. This gopher tortoise lives in the dunes, a wild tangle of sea grapes, century plants, and cordgrass between the grounds and the beach. On nice afternoons it ventures onto the lawn to eat tender new shoots. They can move with surprising speed when necessary.

Cars are one of their few enemies. The speed limit on Sanibel is 30-35, and signs warn motorists to stop for crossing tortoises. We’ve also seen raccoons, marsh rabbits, and once or twice a skinny, island bobcat. I’ve never carved a tortoise, but I think this year I’ll give one a try.

The Birds of Sanibel

Least Tern with Laughing Gull for scale

Least Tern with Laughing Gull for scale

The mangrove swamps and mud flats are not the only locations for birding on Sanibel. The beach is also a good place to spot birds like the Least Tern. This tiny tern is smaller than a robin, but dives fearlessly into the waves to feed on small fish. They are considered threatened in Florida because development on the beach has reduced their nesting habitat. Fortunately there are a few places, like Sanibel and some areas on Fort Myers Beach where their nest sites are protected.

So far in addition to the Least Terns and Yellow-Crowned Night Herons we’ve seen: White Ibis, Snowy Plover, Laughing Gull, Black-bellied Plover, Osprey, Sandwich Tern, Royal Tern, Great Blue Heron, Brown Pelican, White Pelican, Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone, Willet, Eurasian Collared Dove, English Sparrow, Great Egret, Mottled Duck, Tricolored Heron, Swallow-tailed Kite, Common Ground Dove, Double-crested Cormorant, Pied-billed Grebe, Fish Crow, Reddish Egret, Mockingbird, Dunlin, Anhinga, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Palm Warbler, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Mourning Dove, Boat-tailed Grackle, Snowy Egret, Killdeer, and Magnificent Frigate Birds. Still looking for Roseate Spoonbills and Little Blue Herons, and hoping to find time to carve some of them.