Stilted

160610_DE Bombay Hook Stilt_0946acsStilted [stil-tid]: Stiffly dignified or formal.

Hmmm. Ok, this bird could be described as “dignified or formal.” This is a Black-necked Stilt, a slender shorebird with long red legs. In his black and white attire, he seems ready for a formal affair.

I coaxed my friend Don into a trip to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge along Delaware Bay in Delaware on my birthday a few weeks ago. I’m not sure what I was hoping to see. Ospreys, Harriers, Egrets.  American Avocets, if we were lucky. Foxes, maybe.

We weren’t expecting Black-necked Stilts. And we certainly weren’t expecting to see the behaviour we witnessed. I’ve only seen Black-necked Stilts at this Refuge, and only a couple of times.  Always it’s been one or two birds, far across the impoundments, difficult to see and impossible to photograph.

Yet, here they were, Stilts close enough to the Wildlife Drive to see and photograph. We were thrilled to watch these elegant and formal birds.

160610_DE Bombay Hook Stilt_1273acs“Stiff” is not a word that describes the Stilt, though. On land they tip forward on those long legs to forage for invertebrates and small fish, then agilely twist to groom themselves.

06222016_DE Bombay Hook Stilts_1951acsIn flight they are graceful and airy.

160610_DE Bombay Hook Stilt_1015acsA little further down the road, we found more Stilts, and things began to get interesting. Two pairs of birds were flying in a looping, elaborate aerial dance.

160610_DE Bombay Hook_0981acs2A dance it was indeed, as these couples were clearly engaging in a courtship display.

160610_DE Bombay Hook_1332acsTurning and wheeling with long legs dangling, they put in mind ballet dancers in tuxedos leaping across a stage.

160610_DE Bombay Hook_0819acsWe also witnessed another pair mating.

160610_DE Bombay Hook_1451acsYet another Stilt, sitting on a nest, incubating eggs. Stilt nests are scrapes in soft ground. Often they are on small islands surrounded by shallow water.

In the course of a few hours, we saw the entire range of breeding behavior, from courtship display to mating to nesting. We felt lucky to get this little glimpse into the lives of Black-necked Stilts.

But wait. If there’s a nest so easily viewed from the road, might there be babies to see in the future?

Two weeks later Don and I found ourselves back at Bombay Hook, hoping to see Black-necked Stilt chicks. We weren’t disappointed!

06222016_DE Bombay Hook Stilts_1911acsWe found the Stilt family on a low island of green grasses in one of the Refuge’s pools. Two adults, and three chicks. They are all visible in this photograph, although you have to look hard for the third chick. Its head is barely visible just in front of the right-hand adult’s feet, nearly lost in the green grass.

06222016_DE Bombay Hook Stilts_2221acsCuteness Alert! This little ball of fluff is irresistible. A pom-pom on two long slender sticks.

06222016_DE Bombay Hook Stilts_2239acsStepping out. Stilt chicks are able to walk and forage on their own with hours of hatching. It will be some time before they grow feathers and learn to fly, though. Until then, this tiny island is their entire world. Their parents are vigilant, constantly on guard for any possible threat.

06222016_DE Bombay Hook Stilts with Egret_2400acsLike a Great Egret that landed too close for the Stilts’ comfort. One parent took several passes at the Egret. When it moved even closer, the Stilt had seen enough, and aggressively chased the intruder away. Never underestimate the smaller bird if it has chicks to protect.

160610_DE Bombay Hook Stilt_0941acsDon and I had thought ourselves lucky to witness the breeding behavior of Black-necked Stilts. We felt positively privileged to spend time with the adorable fluffy offspring of these elegant and distinguished birds.

My Big Day

160531_PA HNWR Evening_9311acsA “Big Day” in bird-watching parlance is a day when a group of birders try to see as many different species of birds as they can. Recently, I had a different kind of Big Day.

My life list on May 13 consisted of 211 different bird species. On May 14, it was up to 217. That’s a big jump. How?

I saw six new birds in ONE day, that’s how. My BIG DAY.

But do I have photographic evidence? No!

Murphy’s Law of Bird Photography: Go out, camera in hand, in search of stunning photographs of the brightly colored migratory warblers that appear like magic every May, and either:

a) there are no birds, or

b) there are plenty of birds, but they are moving so rapidly deep in the dark treetops that all of your images are rubbish.

160526_PA HNWR Morning Birds_8263acsLike this Common Yellowthroat, so buried in the foliage that its light underparts look green from the reflection of the leaves.

Common Yellowthroats, as their name implies, are pretty common. One hopped across my porch while I was reading one evening. I enjoy seeing them each year, but this was not a new species, a “life bird”, for me.

160428_PA HNWR Warblers_6824acsHere’s a bird in the open, an American Redstart. Great bird, horribly distracting background, too bright. Another common warbler I’ve seen before this year.

John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge is a hotspot for migrating warblers, flycatchers, vireos and other birds in the spring. Many of the local birders said this was the best spring migration we’d had in some years.

Murphy’s Law of Bird Photography, Corollary #1: Go birding WITHOUT the camera, and the birds will sit in the open in beautiful light, singing their hearts out.

See the above incident on the porch. Great bird, really close, no camera.

160515_PA HNWR Warblers_7779acsHere’s the one life bird I saw this spring I managed to capture, a Cape May Warbler. I first saw it the day before at eye level, in the sun, singing away. But, alas, no camera. I found it again the next day with camera in hand; this time it was hidden in the trees. I finally caught it in a blur of motion. This nicely illustrates one of the habits that make warblers so difficult to photograph: they never stay still!

Murphy’s Law of Bird Photography, Corollary #2: Have a Big Day, in which you see SIX new species of warblers, and your only passable images will be of the ubiquitous Yellow Warblers. All thanks to Murphy’s Law of Bird Photography or Corollary #1.

160428_PA HNWR Warblers_6688acsHere’s that ubiquitous Yellow Warbler. Notice how all of my images are of the birds’ tummies? Another warbler habit: Most species like to hang out high in the trees. To see many of them you need to tilt your head way, way back. There’s a reason warbler fans complain of “Warbler Neck.” Most of my images are of birds that hang out a little lower in the canopy.

For those curious to know, my new birds this May were the Blue-winged, Cape May, Wilson’s, Blackpoll, Chestnut-sided and Canada Warblers and the Northern Parula. All but the Blue-winged seen in one day.

Murphy’s Law of Bird Photography, Corollary #3: Have a bird pose in the open for you to photograph, and that’s the bird that might have been a lifer, but you’ll never know for sure what it was.

160515_PA HNWR Warblers_7861acsI was with one of the Refuge’s finest birders, and she wasn’t willing to say definitively which flycatcher this was without hearing it sing. Despite posing for a long time in the open, it never opened its mouth.

It was a real treat to bird with Edie, though. Birding with friends was the only reason I was able to add so many new life birds to my list. I wouldn’t have found some of them if other pairs of eyes hadn’t been searching too. I wouldn’t have been able to identify some of them if others hadn’t helped me out.

There are other birds at the Refuge that are easier to see and photograph.

160516_PA HNWR Oriole_7952acsBaltimore Orioles are stunning at this time of year.

160428_PA HNWR Swallow_6499acsBarn Swallows are everywhere. Trying to capture them in flight is nearly impossible. But they’re not shy when they’re sitting on the boardwalk railing.

160526_PA HNWR Morning Birds_8554acsRed-winged Blackbirds are another common bird that I keep hoping to capture in flight. Sitting among the cattails will have to do.

Speaking of common birds in flight at the Refuge, that’s a Great Blue Heron at the top of this post.

160531_PA HNWR Evening_9265acsI’ve been trying to photograph male Wood Ducks in their elaborate breeding plumage for a long time, not particularly successfully. I’ll take the ducklings any day of the week, though. They’re hot on Mama’s tail as she paddles for the safety of the spatterdock.

Every day’s a Big Day for Mama Wood Duck.

Every day that I am outside observing and enjoying Nature is a Big Day for me.

The Return of the Flickers

They’re back!

160608_PA Home Flickers Return_0043acsA month ago, a Northern Flicker pair had spent days preparing a nest hole in my gray birch tree, only to be evicted by a squirrel.

Then House Sparrows moved in, to be booted out by squirrel in turn.

Now there’s a male flicker in the cavity.

Will he and his mate successfully raise a brood of little flickers?

Or will the squirrels chase them away again?

Stay tuned…

Missed the beginning of the tale? Here it is:

Excavation

Eviction Notice

Eviction Notice

160510_PA Home Flicker Nest_7456acsSometimes Mother Nature throws us a curve ball. Last week I wrote in depth about the nest a Northern Flicker pair was making in my birch tree. Today I am sad to report that they have abandoned the nest.

The Flickers were at the hole constantly for over a week, busily excavating and enlarging the cavity. After that activity ceased, I didn’t see much of them, except for a Flicker head appearing at the hole occasionally. I figured the Flickers were incubating eggs and soon there would be babies. I figured all was well.

Then Saturday my friend Robb asked to see the nest. We walked over just as a gray squirrel scrambled down the tree trunk, and plunged headfirst into the Flicker hole. He completely disappeared and we didn’t see him come out.

Well! This was a nasty turn of events. What happened here? Obviously the Flickers were no longer occupying the cavity, but why? Was the female unable to produce eggs? Did too much human activity near the tree scare them off? Did a European Starling, a frequent nest competitor, interfere with the nest? Did some critter eat the eggs?

Was the squirrel the culprit? Squirrels will eat bird eggs from time to time. Or was the squirrel just taking advantage of the previously abandoned cavity?

We’ll never know. It’s sad that the Flickers’ nest failed. I am disappointed that I won’t get to watch baby Flickers grow up, especially since the cavity was in a terrific location for photography.

This happens with some frequency in the natural world. Flickers raise one brood a year, but they will lay more eggs if the first ones are lost. They expended a lot of energy excavating that cavity. They may try again in the same hole, if the squirrels (or the House Sparrows I saw there today) haven’t moved in permanently. Or they may have to start again somewhere else. But they will start again. As I write this, I can hear the loud WIK-WIK-WIK-WIK-WIK-WIK-WIK call of a Flicker nearby.

There’s a lesson for me in the saga of the Flickers. Though the past year has been filled with wonderful adventures, I have also been struggling with some old familiar failures. Self-critical perfectionist that I am, I find it extremely difficult to let go of those failures. Like the Flickers, I need to shrug it off and start again. Put yesterday in the past, and start each day anew.

Life lessons from the Wild Edge.160426_PA Home Rainbow_8476ac

Excavation

160421_PA Home Flicker Nest Excavation_6183acsThe upcoming third anniversary of the Wild Edge finds me in a reflective mood, pondering the purpose of my blog.  My original reasons for starting a nature photo essay blog were trifold.

  • To share my adventures, writing and photography with friends and family.
  • To share the joy and solace I find in nature.
  • To inspire readers to take notice of the natural world around them.

We humans share our planet with billions of other living things. How many of us pay attention to this? How many of us live from daybreak to dark only seeing the roads, the traffic, the office building, or the inside of our home?

Outside there is a world of creatures going about their family lives right under our noses. In our backyards, in the schoolyards and playgrounds, even in the strips of grass and shrubs that border our parking lots.

160420_PA Home Flicker Nest Excavation_5736acsLike the Northern Flicker couple starting a new home in my backyard. They’ve decided that a decaying trunk of my old gray birch tree is the perfect place to build a nest. They’ve been working hard for more than a week, excavating and enlarging the cavity.

160421_PA Home Flicker Nest Excavation_6218acsHello? Anybody home?

Like all woodpeckers, Flickers have large sturdy beaks for drilling into wood. Not for food, though. They prefer ants and beetles found on the ground, which they often reach by drilling into the soil.

160421_PA Home Flicker Nest Excavation_6012acsPapa Flicker nearly disappears as he reaches deep into the hole to do a little housekeeping.

160421_PA Home Flicker Nest Excavation_6016acsHe emerges with a piece of wood in his beak…

160421_PA Home Flicker Nest Excavation_6025acs…And shakes his head vigorously, tossing wood and sawdust in every direction. That tiny bit gone, he disappears again to dig out more wood from the inside of the cavity, then tosses it away from the tree. Over and over and over again. Building a snug home is hard work.

160421_PA Home Flicker Nest Excavation_6051acsMama Flicker arrives to take the next construction shift. She perches behind Papa, waiting her turn.

160421_PA Home Flicker Nest Excavation_6053aPapa Flicker launches himself from the tree trunk…

160421_PA Home Flicker Nest Excavation_6054acs

…And flies off. Northern Flickers were once thought to be two species. The eastern birds were called Yellow-shafted Flickers, because the feathers of their tails and wings have yellow shafts.  The feathers of western Flickers have red shafts.

The yellow shafts are easy to see here, though the bird is a blur of motion.

160421_PA Home Flicker Nest Excavation_6122acsMama Flicker approves of her new home. Soon there will be eggs, and then babies. And I will have a front row seat to watch them grow up. Right in my backyard.

Right at the Wild Edge.

What’s going on in your backyard?

The Clown Prince of White Rock

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4486acsConsider the Coot.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4406acsIn the pantheon of White Rock Lake, he is the court jester.

Black of body, red of eye, white of bill, the American Coot is a plain-looking water bird that can’t figure out where he belongs.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4503acsOn water he swims and dives like a duck; but he isn’t a duck.

Consider the Coot. On land he doesn’t waddle, but walks like a chicken. He’s sometimes called “Mud Hen” and his shape resembles a chicken; but he isn’t a chicken.

In the air he’s awkward – but first he has to get there, a challenge for the coot. He takes off by running for a long way across the water while flapping his wings, like a loon; but he isn’t a loon.

Other birds don’t think much of the Coot.

151223_TX White Rock Lake_4127acsDouble-crested Cormorants, undeniably snooty, look down their bills from lofty heights at the Coot.

151223_TX White Rock Lake_4158acsGreat-tailed Grackle struts, smug in the knowledge that he outshines the Coot.

151229_TX White Rock Lake_4853acsGreat Egret is studiously cool, ignoring the Coots.

151229_TX White Rock Lake_5177acsYes, the bird royalty treats the Coot with disdain. Not so the squirrels. They think the Coot’s a little nuts.

Perhaps this is why. What sensible bird would hurl himself at a wall of rushing water 5 times his height – for fun?!? Yet that is what the Coot does, over and over again. He walks up the face of the dam spillway until the water knocks him tail over teacups and washes him down the stream bed. Then he walks up and does it again. It’s whitewater kayaking, coot-style.

Coot Collage 2

Click for full-size image

FUN FACT: The American Coot is most comfortable on the water, but his feet aren’t webbed like a duck’s. Instead they have long toes with lobes of skin that propel him through the water. The same lobes keep him from sinking into mud when he’s on shore leave.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4696acsLook out, here come the Coots!

White Rock Lake is a large park in a highly urban area. Lots of folks come down to the shore with bags of bread for the “ducks.” What they get is Coots.

Consider the Coot. The Coot is a rail; rails are usually known for their secretiveness. But he’s a noisy gregarious bird that hangs out in large flocks in the open.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4727aWhich squabble over every bit of junk food tossed their way.

Other birds think this behavior unseemly. Little do they know how magical, how wondrous, it is!

An audience of young urban children is enthralled with his comedy routine. They giggle at his antics, and shriek with delight. For many of them, the park is a rare escape from the noise, the congestion and the concrete of their neighborhoods. The Coot is their first connection with wildlife.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4722acsIf even a few of these children grow to love and defend wild animals and wild lands, it will have started here. In this urban park, in the heart of Dallas, on the wild edge between man and nature.

The promise of the future rests on the wings of the clown prince of White Rock, the American Coot.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4492acsAll hail the Coot!

A Bird In Hand

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6463acsWildlife photography should always be this easy!

While in Cape May, I stumbled upon a demonstration by the Cape May Raptor Banding Project. This is a research project that captures, measures and bands hawks at several sites in the fall to study migration. The researchers also meet the public to discuss their work, bringing banded hawks for up close observation.

And I do mean UP CLOSE. Usually I’m photographing hawks on the wing in the distance. Occasionally I’ll be lucky enough to see one perched nearby. But here was a chance to see and photograph these magnificent birds 10 feet away – and they weren’t going anywhere!

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6285acsThe birds arrived in these tubes. They’d already been measured and banded. The tubes keep them calm.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6344acsThe first birds out were Sharp-shinned Hawks, male and female.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6335acs“What’s up there? I want to be up there!”

After we’d had a good long look at the Sharpies, they were released. Sharpies live in forests; since they pursue their prey through dense stands of trees, they are speedy and acrobatic fliers. It didn’t take long for them to fly out of sight.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6360acsGetting a Cooper’s Hawk out of a travel tube. One of the two presenters was a young college intern. She handled these birds like a pro.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6375acsEven when they objected. Her free hand is making a motion meant to calm the hawk. Note the talon marks on her left hand!

Cooper’s Hawks live in woodlands, but have become quite comfortable in suburban yards. They take an interest in the songbirds on my feeders from time to time.

Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks look very much alike and are difficult to tell apart. Experienced birders talk about differences in tail shape, head size, eye position and other field marks.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6433acsCooper’s Hawks are bigger than Sharpies, but this isn’t apparent unless you have two next to each other to compare. And since female Sharpies are nearly as big as male Cooper’s hawks, it still may not be obvious. This is a Cooper’s, and a big bird, so I think this is the female.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6501acsAfter the two Cooper’s Hawks were released, the last raptor came out to play, a Merlin. Look at those eyes! Quite a contrast to the yellow eyes of the other hawks. Merlins, in fact, aren’t hawks at all, but falcons.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6497acsThe presenters gave us a good opportunity to see the detail in the back feathers…

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6515acs…and the wings…

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6524acs… and the talons, sporting a brand-new band. Understanding the migration patterns of hawks is important in protecting the birds and the habitats they need for survival.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6567acsAnd off goes our Merlin! No longer a bird in hand, disappearing over the horizon like magic.

It was magical to spend this time with these beautiful raptors.

Where The Wild Things Are

150829_PA HNWR Little Blue Heron_6388acs

Little Blue Heron, Juvenile

This time, I did it right. After months of not putting myself in position to make good nature images, of always being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong equipment doing the wrong thing – this time I did it right.

Killdeer

Killdeer

Right time? Early morning when the light is good and the wildlife is active – check.

Sora

Sora

Right place? The boardwalk at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, where interesting birds like Soras and Virginia Rails and Glossy Ibises have been the talk of the town, and social media, for weeks – check.

A small bug casts a big shadow

A small bug casts a big shadow

Right equipment? Binoculars and Canon 7D Mark II camera with the 100-400mm lens, in my hands and not back in the car – check.

150829_PA HNWR Marsh Wren_6201acs

Marsh Wren, juvenile

Doing the right thing? Two hours of watching and waiting patiently, on my own, instead of rushed by the need to keep up with fast-moving friends – check.

Sora

Sora

The result? Actual photos of wildlife! Killdeer. Sora.

Green Heron

Green Heron

Little Blue Heron. Green Heron, at the top of a tree, no less!

Bug standoff

Bug standoff

Even a stand-off between two bugs on a leaf.

150829_PA HNWR Killdeer_6009acs

Killdeer

This is where the wild things are.

150829_PA HNWR Sora_6132acs

And I think we found the wildlife photographer.

Where Is The Wildlife?

Tree Swallow, John Heinz NWR

Tree Swallow, John Heinz NWR

Where is the wildlife? It’s been all Appalachians and kayak adventures on The Wild Edge this summer. Shouldn’t there be birds? Where can they be hiding?

Black Vultures, Bombay Hook NWR

Black Vultures, Bombay Hook NWR

Are the songbirds singing in the sun while I am inside in meetings and museums and antique shops?

Goldfinch, John Heinz NWR

Goldfinch, John Heinz NWR

Are the shorebirds and herons wading in wild wet places while I am at forts and canals and cliffs?

Glossy Ibis & Snowy Egret, John Heinz NWR

Glossy Ibis & Snowy Egret, John Heinz NWR

Are the soras and rails strutting their stuff in the early morning and late evening while I’m busy with the nuisances of everyday life?

Marsh Wren, John Heinz NWR

Marsh Wren, John Heinz NWR

Are the tricolored herons posing for close-ups in the middle of the day while I am too hot and too frustrated to be bothered with carrying a camera?

Wood Duck, John Heinz NWR

Wood Duck, John Heinz NWR

Are the orioles and waxwings flitting through the treetops while I am kayaking in urban and suburban rivers, armed only with a point and shoot camera inadequate for wildlife photography?

Avocets, Bombay Hook NWR

Avocets, Bombay Hook NWR

Are the avocets and black-necked stilts feeding far, far away when I do have the right gear in the right place?

Maybe the wildlife has been there all along. Maybe it’s me who’s missing.

Maybe I’m always in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong equipment doing the wrong thing.

Maybe the real question is –

Great Egret, John Heinz NWR

Great Egret, John Heinz NWR

Where is the wildlife photographer?

Wild Goose Chase

150323_Middle Creek_2249acsMarch brings the annual Snow Goose migration show to Middle Creek. At the peak, there were 110,000 birds there. By the time I got there the numbers had dropped significantly. There were still a lot of birds!

Middle Creek Snow Geese_2763Blast off!

150323_Middle Creek_2800acsSnow Geese will suddenly take off and fly for no apparent reason. They fly one way…

150323_Middle Creek_2687acsAnd right back the other way.

150323_Middle Creek_2977acsA goose outstanding in his field.

150323_Middle Creek_3020aChecking their look in the mirror.

150323_Middle Creek_3124acsShow-off.

150323_Middle Creek_3065acsTundra Swans were also at Middle Creek in large numbers.

150323_Middle Creek_3897acsNear evening the Snow Geese began to fly in from the fields to roost on the water.

150323_Middle Creek_3964acsSkeins of geese and gossamer clouds on a canvas of sky.

150323_Middle Creek_3409Tundra Swans at sunset.