Still in a thankful mood, my friends and I took an overnight trip on Thanksgiving weekend to explore someplace new. We piled into the car and headed two hours south, to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. 28,000 acres of mixed hardwood and pine forests, tidal marsh and freshwater wetlands awaited us at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Continue reading
Most people celebrate our national day for giving thanks with a feast that centers on the Turkey. Naturally, the turkeys have other ideas, and seek refuge on this holiday. Just as naturally, my friends and I seek Refuge to see turkeys and other birds, by spending our Thanksgiving weekend at National Wildlife Refuges. Continue reading
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.
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.
And comical. Heads down to feed, the gulls resembled a tail-feathered basket-weave fence. One poor guy in the middle had a complaint.
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.
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 (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.
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.
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?
Warblers to orioles, kingbirds to grosbeaks, there’s no such thing as an ordinary bird. They’re all special in their own way.
Ordinary (adj): 1. of no special quality or interest; commonplace; unexceptional. 2. plain or undistinguished. (Dictionary.com)
Ordinary bird? There’s no such thing.
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..
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
Greater Yellowlegs? Lesser Yellowlegs? Or one of each? Who’s to say?
(Yellowlegs identification is a challenge. For the record, I think these are Greater Yellowlegs. At least the one on the left with the long bill. But I could be wrong.)
Ahhh, lunch! Oysters are not on the menu today, but crabs are. This Oystercatcher carries his entrée into a nearby puddle. Apparently, it’s considered good manners to wash one’s food before one eats it.
How to tell these birds apart? The American Oystercatcher has an all-black head, red bill, and those marvelous red-rimmed golden eyes. The Black Skimmer in the background is a stockier bird with a white chin and unremarkable dark eyes.
But then there’s that bill. Razor thin, with a lower bill much longer than the top. Skimmers feed by flying over the water, bill open and lower mandible cutting through the surface. The bill snaps shut as soon as it touches a fish. Gotcha!
…in the sunset glow of another fine day at the beach.