Extraordinary Birds, Bayshore Edition

In search of avian wonders out of the ordinary, we turn now to the sparkling shores of the Delaware Bay. A large expanse of sandy beaches and saltwater marshes along the New Jersey side of the bay attracts many feathered marvels.

I went to the Bayshore one sunny May day to see migrating shorebirds. I’m easily distracted. A side trip to Cape May Point State Park occupied most of my morning.

You’d be distracted, too, by the Glossy Ibis I found at the edge of a pond. His deep burgundy plumage shimmered in the sun as he stalked, slow and stately, along the shore.

Everything about an ibis is long: long legs, long neck, long bill. All the better to eat with, my dear!

Distracted again, this time at Heislerville WMA. Bald Eagles, once endangered, are now common in some areas of the region. But an eagle posing on the roof of a nearby house? Extraordinary!

Alongside the road, a gravel, shell and grass area serves as a parking lot for visitors. It also serves as a nesting area for the local Killdeer population. We didn’t see this little mother when we pulled in; three feet to the right would have been disastrous.

The Killdeer was incubating eggs right there in the parking area. She was none too happy about our near-miss and our presence, so I took my photos quickly and left her in peace.

Wait, that’s not a bird! Did I mention I’m easily distracted? Clouded Sulphur.

Well, finally! Distraction-free at Reeds Beach.  There was no shortage of shorebirds.

And gulls. Laughing Gulls are quite common in my neck of the woods. The sheer numbers of them clustered at the water’s edge was extraordinary. Extraordinarily noisy, too.

And comical. Heads down to feed, the gulls resembled a tail-feathered basket-weave fence. One poor guy in the middle had a complaint.

“Hey! Quit stepping on my toes!”

Ruddy Turnstones were dramatic in russet, brown and black plumage.

The stars of the show were the Red Knots. This little shorebird travels immense distances every year from wintering grounds at the tip of South America, to breed in the far north. Along the way, having lost much of its body weight to the rigors of flight, it joins other long-distance migrants at the Delaware Bay, to feast upon the fat-laden eggs of the horseshoe crab.

Horseshoe crabs come ashore to lay their eggs at the same time the shorebirds arrive. Unlike this unfortunate crab, most remain right side up and survive to breed another year. Their numbers are dwindling though, due to sustained over-harvesting. Bad news for the shore birds, especially the Red Knots.

Hey, wait! Was it something I said? Come back!

And back they come, in a big hurry to get to those eggs.

There is concern for a number of shorebird species, but the Red Knot population is in the worst shape. In an attempt to protect and conserve these birds, scientists have been tracking their numbers and movements. Spotters were posted at Reeds Beach, recording band colors and numbers. Only time will tell if conservation efforts succeed or fail.

This Red Knot has been captured, weighed and released, and wears some distinctive jewelry to commemorate the experience. Green is the color used for birds in the United States. I saw orange bands as well. Those birds were banded in Argentina!

From Argentina to New Jersey, and on to the far north, shorebirds undertake extraordinarily long journeys, twice, every year. The horseshoe crabs along Delaware Bayshore provide the fuel they need to keep going. Its sandy shores are the perfect places to savor the wonder of these extraordinary birds.

Extraordinary Birds, Woodland Edition

Extraordinary (adjective): 1. beyond what is usual, ordinary, regular, or established. 2. exceptional in character, amount, extent, degree, etc.; noteworthy; remarkable. SYNONYMS: uncommon, singular, rare, phenomenal, special. (Dictionary.com)

If the commonplace birds that frequent our everyday world are “ordinary”, then “extraordinary” birds must be those that are unusual or rare visitors in our lives.

What’s ho-hum to one birder might be remarkable to another, however. Here are a few of the extraordinary birds I saw in the woods this spring, each one more special than the last.

I see Yellow-rumped Warblers like the one above all the time. Common, yes, but far from ordinary.  Because there’s no such thing as an ordinary bird. Yellow-rumps in breeding plumage are quite striking.

Yellow Warblers are also at Heinz NWR in large numbers in the spring. They’re plain, but very bright. And they are always cheerfully singing their little heads off.

In the Pine Barrens, a Prairie Warbler spent a long time perched  at the top of a pitch pine in the sun.

Then he started caroling. Prairie Warblers are more frequently heard than seen, for me at least.

Back at Heinz, an Eastern Kingbird at the water’s edge.

I see Baltimore Orioles from time to time in the spring. If one oriole is good, two must be better!

Spring migration brought the warbler hit parade to Heinz. Magnolia Warbler.

I don’t see Black-throated Green Warblers too often, and had never photographed one before. Catching this one was tough. It hung around for a long time, but like most warblers, it never stayed in one place, and was always just a little too far away.

Canada Warbler. Another bird new to my photo collection, though not my life list.

I can’t show you my favorite warbler of the spring. There was a brilliant Blackburnian Warbler in a treetop at Heinz. I’ve only caught brief glimpses of Blackburnians in Michigan. This time I got a good look at the bird, but you’ll have to take my word for it. He didn’t come close enough for a portrait.

Rarer still was this bright confection in Higbee Beach WMA in New Jersey. It’s a Yellow-breasted Chat, only the second one I’ve ever seen. I was shooting here from a tall observation platform at treetop level, the perfect perch from which to watch this warbler sing and dance.

Walking along the path at Cape May Point State Park, I spotted a flash of bright blue. Bluebird? Blue Jay? Tree Swallow?

Nope!

At the edge of the woods, a Blue Grosbeak was feeding on grass seeds. I’ve never seen one before. That makes this a life bird, the first one of its species I’d ever spotted.

Warblers to orioles, kingbirds to grosbeaks, there’s no such thing as an ordinary bird. They’re all special in their own way.

How extraordinary!

Ordinary Birds

Ordinary (adj): 1. of no special quality or interest; commonplace; unexceptional. 2. plain or undistinguished. (Dictionary.com)

Ordinary bird? There’s no such thing.

Sure, there are birds that are commonplace, or plain and undistinguished. Pay them no mind.

Spring is the time to see migrating birds, the brilliant warblers and splendid shorebirds. After all, they’re only here for a short time as they pass through on their way to breeding grounds farther north.

Those other birds? The ordinary birds? We can look at them later; they’re not going anywhere.

Life doesn’t always work out the way you plan. Want to see and photograph crisp russet and black Ruddy Turnstones or flame-colored Blackburnian Warblers?

Here, have a Gray Catbird. They’ve descended on the area in droves. One day, there were none to be seen. The next, the woods were full of them. Commonplace? Maybe “ubiquitous” is a better word for them. Noisy, too; there’s one keeping up a steady stream of chatter outside my window as I type.

Sparrows are often considered “ordinary” birds. “Little brown jobs”, or LBJs, they’re called. Plain, drab. Yet this jaunty little fellow is anything but! A pair of Chipping Sparrows hopped along the sandy road, all pink feet, striped heads and bright eyes.

Sometimes a bird is “ordinary” because it is out in open view frequently. This juvenile Red-tailed Hawk is a city-bred bird, and far from shy around people. It refused to be ignored, demanding we cast our glance its way. It perched on this pole so long everyone got a good look at its exquisite feathers and piercing eyes.

Looking for the imperiled Red Knot? Perhaps something more common instead.

Take, for example, a Mallard. The quintessential duck, he even says “QUAAACK!” Mallards are common wherever there’s water, but how often do we truly look at them? Iridescent green head, mottled breast, bright orange feet…

This duck has been banded. Birds are banded so that researchers can learn about a population’s abundance, distribution and health. Someone must think Mallards are important enough to study and learn from.

Egrets are plentiful enough that, despite their beauty, I frequently will pass them by in search of less “ordinary” birds. Until one of them decides to do something interesting; say, catch a fish. A Snowy Egret, snack, wears its breeding headdress of long lacy feathers.

A Tree Swallow is a commonplace bird, and plainly adorned in blue and white. But, oh! That blue! And it’s wearing an expression that can only be called endearing..

Some days, in search of the extraordinary, you get lucky and find it. Other days, life gives you something even better – the chance to look anew at the wonders of our ordinary birds!

The Third Time’s the Charm

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Confined as I was to plant and rock photography all winter, I ached to go somewhere known for wildlife. Bombay Hook NWR in Delaware beckoned. My Facebook feed had been full of close-up photos of the wonders to be seen there. Foxes. Owls. Meadow birds like Bobwhites, Horned Larks and Meadowlarks. Raccoons. Foxes. Bald Eagles by the dozens. Glossy Ibises. Avocets and Black-necked Stilts. Did I mention foxes?

Getting to Bombay Hook felt jinxed. Something always went wrong. In January, a trip was planned with a group of photographer friends – and it was too rainy. In March, a trip was planned with another friend – and he was under the weather.

Finally, in mid-April, all the stars aligned, and I made my much-anticipated visit to Bombay Hook. The landscape was still wearing its winter coat of dried tan grasses. No Bobwhites or Horned Larks lurked in the meadows and grassy areas.

I set out on the Wildlife Drive to see what I might find further afield.

My first bird was – a Grackle. Common, I think. Not usually what one would consider a pretty bird, but look closely at the iridescence of the feathers.

A handful of American Avocets graced Raymond Pool. Most of them were too far off to photograph. One of the downsides of wildlife photography on a budget. I was lucky that two wandered a little closer.

Photography at this distance is marginal at best with my 400mm lens – I’m really stretching the limit here. But I do love this bird. Avocets are one of the bird species that we don’t see at John Heinz NWR, but they are common just a little farther south in Delaware. These birds alone are worth the trip. I also saw two Black-necked Stilts, another mid-sized sandpiper that are a Bombay Hook specialty. They didn’t want to pose, however.

No sign of foxes yet. I wondered what I might see on the Salt Marsh boardwalk trail.

Ah, a Great Egret, at the top of a tall tree. I’m always startled to see an Egret in a tree. Seems far too big to be perched on that thin branch. Wading in shallow water is a much safer place to be.

Nearby a pair of Tree Swallows were bickering over a tree cavity. Swallows argue a lot. There’s never enough housing on the market.

Back on the road, I came across another bird not known for its beauty. Usually I see dark-faced Black Vultures at Bombay Hook, but this one’s a real turkey – a Turkey Vulture.

Sunbathing in vultures serves two purposes. At night, they keep their body temperature at a lower level, and so often spread their swings in the sun to warm up. It was one o’clock in the afternoon, though, so it seems more likely this fellow was drying his feathers.

Bald Eagles flew past, the juvenile chasing his elder. They say imitation’s the sincerest form of flattery. I doubt the adult appreciated this expression of adulation.

Far across Raymond Pool I saw several Bald Eagles standing in the shallow water, looking down. This was curious behavior. Were they looking for fish? Admiring their reflections?

Maybe, like me, they couldn’t get enough of the deep blue water sparkling in the sun.

On the ponds, there were large numbers of Northern Shovelers and Green-winged Teals. Again, out of range of my camera. On the bay side, however, a small flock of Ruddy Ducks bobbed close to shore.

Ruddies are neat little ducks. Males sport a blue bill and marvelous cinnamon plumage in breeding season.

Did I ever see my fox? Nope. I drove through the meadows near Finis Pool, hoping to see one, or perhaps a Horned Lark or Meadowlark. No such luck. Nor did I see owls at Bear Swamp Pool.

All is not lost. A Lesser Yellowlegs pranced near Parsons Point.

Wildlife photography is challenging. You have to put yourself in the right place at the right time. Then you have to be patient enough to wait in one spot until the critters get within camera range. That means ignoring all of Bombay Hook except that one spot, something I can’t bring myself to do. I might miss something!

So I make the most of the opportunities that present themselves. Like this Lesser Yellowlegs, doing a little yoga. After a winter spent too close to home, it was good to stretch my wings a little. Just being at Bombay Hook, watching the critters do their thing, was enough for me.

The third time’s definitely the charm!

It’s a Colorful World

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone.

The world looks different since I had cataract surgery. Brighter. Sharper. Cleaner. It’s as if I’d been looking through a very dirty windshield for a very long time, and someone came along and washed it clean.

And oh, the colors! Deeper, richer, more lifelike. Just in time for arrival of Lady Spring, dancing across a carpet of wildflowers in a shimmering gown that grows greener every day.

Without further ado, here is a sampling of my more colorful world.

Looking down on the bud and three bracts (not leaves) of a trillium not yet in bloom. Her Ladyship’s accent colors may be subtle or showy, but she sure doesn’t skimp on the green.  What color will this be when it blooms? Red? Pink? White? Yellow? Purple?

A violet. The name says it all.

I can see all obstacles in my way…

It’s not just seeing the obstacles. It’s the depth perception, a critical sense that had gone missing for some time.  It’s been hard to accurately judge where to put my feet, and I have a small phobia about falling.

This past weekend, we went to a nature preserve where the trail proved more challenging than we expected.

It was a narrow path that clung to the side of a steep ravine high above a creek. A thick layer of dry leaves hid the rocks and roots along the path, and made for a lot of slipping and sliding.

Not long ago, I would have been very uncomfortable, and possibly would have even turned back.

Not now. With more confidence in my vision, I really enjoyed this hike. I clambered up and down rock outcroppings like a mountain goat, and even made the numerous stream crossings easily.

Plus, there were wildflowers!

Dutchman’s breeches, one of our spring ephemerals, wildflowers that bloom in the brief time between when the snow melts and the trees leaf out.

Spring ephemerals carpet the forest floor with small splashes of color. They have a short time in which to grow, feed, bloom and set seed for the next year.

It seems Her Ladyship’s small footmen have hung their trousers out on the laundry line.

Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind…

The last few months I’ve been in a sort of creative funk.

Winter is partially to blame for that, especially a winter of bare brown earth and trees.

Not now. I find my enthusiasm for photography is awakening as the earth awakens.

Lady Spring has arrived, and I can see her beauty!

And here it is! The aptly named spring beauty, one of our earliest wildflowers, pretty in pink.

White is a color, too.

My cataracts had turned black and white to dark gray and yellowish tan. For an amateur photographer, seeing true black and true white again is a joy. Especially when the white adorns one of Her Ladyship’s loveliest flowers.

Bloodroot gets its name, not from the creamy white petals and bright golden stamens, but from the orange-red juice in its underground rhizomes.

A trout lily nods in the shade of the forest floor.

The scent of Lady Spring’s perfume drifts on the warm air, leading my eyes to crabapple blossoms of rose and white. Oh, that sky! I don’t remember the sky being this blue…

It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day.

What do you see?

Lyrics to “I Can See Clearly Nowby Jimmy Nash

March Madness

The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month. – Henry Van Dyke

Sometimes the first spring day comes well before the first day of spring. One shouldn’t be too surprised when winter has more to say…

We were blessed with a number of really warm days during February. Sunny days in the 60s, and even the 70s. Daffodils bloomed; trees began to bud. An early taste of spring.

Eager to shake a bad case of cabin fever, I found myself supplementing my customary woodsy walks at a local park with frequent jaunts to Tyler Arboretum. One very warm day, I discovered that the frogs had come out to play. Spring peepers were secretive as always, impossible to see and impossible not to hear. And the wood frogs! Dozens of wood frogs. I’d never seen so many.

They were out of hibernation, looking for love, and finding it. Shortly thereafter, the pond was full of frogspawn.

My cell camera doesn’t zoom in very well; this is the best image I took of the army of wood frogs. (Yes, a group of frogs is called an “army!”)

And why do I only have cell phone images of the wood frogs?

I blame a lack of vision. Not the creative kind of vision. Literal vision – my eye sight.

I’ve been battling rapidly worsening cataracts in both eyes for some time. Cataracts are easily corrected by surgery, but the process has taken far longer than I expected. In the meantime, my impaired vision has dampened my enthusiasm for photography and limited my driving to a handful of nearby locales.

Most of the time, lacking all confidence, I haven’t even bothered to take my camera. Inevitably, I’ve found something neat that begged for a photograph, and I’ve had to resort to my cell phone. That’s been great for my Facebook page, not so much for the Wild Edge.

So the next very warm day, I went to Tyler, with a real camera, specifically looking for frogs. Of course, there were no frogs, but I found other subjects to shoot. The bridge across Dismal Run offered a unique view of a water strider skimming along the surface.

This is one of my favorite spots, a bench under eastern red cedar trees at the top of Pink Hill. After climbing the trail up from Dismal Run, a nice shady place to rest and cool off is welcome.

One warm Saturday, Robb, Don and I found ourselves in a bit of a hot spot. The day was sunny and blessedly free of other commitments. So we went to the Pine Barrens, in search of green trees.

We weren’t expecting to find our chosen trail flanked by the site of a recent controlled burn.

A very recent controlled burn. So recent, in fact, that there were quite a few plumes of smoke where the fire still smoldered.

Controlled burns are conducted in the Pinelands to clear the forest floor of deep layers of pine needles and other brush. If left in place, this duff could fuel disastrous wildfires.

Burns like this help the pine trees, too. Pitch pine cones are serotinous. They require fire with temperatures above 108° to open and release their seeds. This strange cone got the job half done.

One of my favorite views in the Pine Barrens. White sand, tea-colored water, green trees, blue sky. Serenity on the Oswego River.

The calendar turned from fevered February to March madness, and suddenly winter returned. Don’t let the deep blue sky fool you. It was COLD this day at Fort Mifflin. And very windy. We took a walk along the outer seawall, and Don was almost blown into the Delaware River.

After a winter in which we’d had only two light snowfalls, a true winter storm was a rude awakening. Snow and sleet, frozen hard overnight, left an impenetrable layer 6” deep, even deeper to the north.

When the roads cleared, I went in search of interesting snow photographs. With a real camera. Lake Nockamixon and Haycock Mountain, in Bucks County.

Mostly I was looking for red barns. Found one!

Winter grass and snow.

Found another barn!

This one came with a lovely farm pond, flanked by Canada Geese, and, as I learned later, a Great Blue Heron.

Back at the lake I found some of the plants encased in ice.

The snow and ice got me thinking about those wood frogs. Wood frogs can survive freezing. But on the warm days they laid thousands of eggs. The frogspawn was still there on my last visit, masses of strings of dark-centered gelatinous spheres. Will they survive? Will there be tadpoles? Or will the madness of winter following spring be the downfall of this new generation of frogs?

This topsy-turvy winter may not have been beneficial to the frogs. It certainly hasn’t been beneficial to my photography. I feel as if am simply killing time, enduring an endless maddening wait for something just over the horizon, like frogs waiting for a warm spring day.

Waiting can have its own benefits. The lessons I’ve learned from this period of my life? Never take good eyesight for granted. Don’t sit in the house and mope; time in nature heals the restless soul. Don’t overlook the wonders that abound at even the most familiar places.

And don’t leave the camera at home!