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!

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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!

White Rock Lake: A New Perspective

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4763acsKayaking, the day after Christmas. Who would have guessed?

Yet that’s the way I spent my holiday this year. Christmas with family in Dallas, Texas is a tradition. Spending time at White Rock Lake, walking and photographing the park and the wildlife there, is a tradition. Getting out on the water there – well, here’s to new traditions!

Last year I discovered two kayaks, hidden away behind my cousin Jensen’s house. I immediately began a subtle (ok, not so subtle) campaign to coax him into an excursion on White Rock Lake over the holidays. All we needed was warmth, sunshine and light winds, the last always essential on a big lake like White Rock.

The day was warm, but the sky was dark and moody, and we even had a brief shower. No matter. The morning was dead calm, the lake as smooth as glass. I was paddling, for gosh sakes, the day after Christmas. All was right with the world.

161226_tx-white-rock-lake-kayak_112937acsAfter years of exploring White Rock Lake from land, this was the perspective I had been itching to see – White Rock from the water.

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4761acsMy cousin Jensen, lookin’ good.

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4767acsCruising past the marina. Brightly colored kayaks rested among the sailboats, just waiting for someone to liberate them from their land-locked existence.

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4771acsJensen knifed through the water so powerfully he threatened to paddle right out of my picture. One-handed, yet!

Elaborate mansions line the shores of the lake behind him, and beyond that, the Dallas skyline.

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4777acsA wonderful pedestrian bridge arched over a narrow arm of the lake.

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4795acsWe paddled under the Mockingbird Lane bridge, where Jensen tried his hand at a little fishing. The day after Christmas. Imagine that!

After this, my photography went south. To capture images in the darkness under the bridge, I needed to adjust the settings of my small waterproof point-and-shoot camera. I forgot to reset it afterward. Later I learned that this camera can’t handle those settings. Only a few images after that point were even usable, and they’re a little embarrassing.

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4823acsHere’s one of them anyway, which I only share since it’s of my favorite White Rock bird, the American Coot.

Jensen and I paddled a short way up White Rock Creek. We could have explored a lot further up the waterway, but frankly, it got depressing.

Why? Trash. Plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups and other bits and pieces of detritus. Now, I’m used to Darby Creek at home, which draws its fair share of refuse. But not this bad.

img951911acThe scene inspired Jensen and his son Jake to do a little volunteer work a month later.

They spent a good three hours cleaning up trash from a 40-foot section of shoreline, filling two large Hefty bags in the process.

Here’s one of their finds. Way to go, guys! (Photo by Jensen Moock)

170101_tx-wrl-kayak-jensen-and-alex_950923acsSpeaking of family… Jensen’s daughter Alex had really wanted to go kayaking with us. Alas, we only had two kayaks. So she went with her dad a week or so later. As you can see, they had a much prettier day. And Jensen had prettier company. (Photo by Jensen Moock)

Notice the GoPro behind the seat. Alex, soon to graduate from high school, is a talented filmmaker. She starts at prestigious Belmont University in the fall. Can you tell I’m proud of her?

(That doesn’t get you off the hook, Alex – I still haven’t seen footage from your White Rock kayak experience. Or anything you shot from the drone.)

170101_tx-wrl-kayak-jensen-and-alex_9155acsA lake, a fishing rod and a sunset. Jensen, enjoying the serenity of a day with his daughter. (Photo by Alex Moock)

Back to my little White Rock adventure. After the paddle up the creek, Jensen and I returned to our exploration of the lake. He had no luck fishing, but we chatted with another boater who told us a few fish tales. I showed Jensen the dog park, and the arm of the lake I call “Cormorant Corner”, for all the Double-crested Cormorants that roost in the trees there. Funny to think that a lifelong Dallas resident needed to be shown around White Rock Lake by a part-time visitor.

161226_tx-white-rock-lake-kayak_122640acsHere’s a rarely seen sight – me, captured on camera.

On White Rock Lake.

The day after Christmas.

(Photo by Jensen Moock)

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4843acsDramatic clouds over the lake. They would part just as we were getting off the water, yielding to sunshine and blue skies.

I ate lunch in my bare feet. The day after Christmas.

It doesn’t get any better than that.

A Texas Ecology Lesson

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7840acsEven in winter, the Blackland prairie habitat at the Heard Sanctuary in Texas was beautiful. Sunlight painted the grasses and plants with glowing shades of amber, russet and pale cream. A bird box awaited the arrival of new life.

I wasn’t expecting an ecology lesson when I wandered through the Heard Sanctuary. I was thinking about the variety of habitats and plant communities that I was seeing. I was also wondering where the critters were. But I soon realized that all the elements of a complex ecosystem were observable here, hiding in plain sight.

ECOSYSTEM (noun): a community of living organisms in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment (things like air, water and mineral soil), interacting as a system. (Wikipedia)

A habitat is the natural environment for an organism. Add a variety of plants and animals, make it interconnected and self-sustaining, and now you’ve got an ecosystem!

An ecosystem is self-sufficient and cyclical; its nutrients go through a series of changes that transport them around the ecosystem in an unending web. Ecosystems need abiotic matter, producers and consumers, scavengers and decomposers. All of these were in evidence on my walk through the Heard Sanctuary.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8157aThis is the black soil of the Blackland Prairie. Soil, sediment and organic matter form the abiotic component of an ecosystem. Here the soil is an alkaline clay of chalk, limestone and shale. In dry weather, large deep cracks form in its surface. All the cycles of life – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, water cycles and more – start with the soil and come back to the soil. Abiotic matter, check.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7755acsGrowing in that rich dark soil were plants. Pretty plants…

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7759acs… and strange plants. This one has winged stems. Plants are the producers of the ecosystem, taking nutrients from the soil and energy from the sun to grow and reproduce. Their seeds, fruit, stems and leaves become food for the animals. Producers, check.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7538acsWalking along the trail through the woodlands, I heard the twitters of small birds – chickadees, nuthatches, a cardinal. While searching in vain for them, the nubby texture of this tree caught my eye. That big hole looked just right for an owl… but alas, no one was home.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8112aThese are galls, or they may be burls. The two growths are similar, and there are so many conflicting definitions online that I couldn’t sort out the difference. Insects, bacteria or fungi get under the tree’s skin, and an abnormal swelling of plant tissues forms around the invader. These growths are the result.

Most galls are small and appear on leaves or twigs, but they can be large and woody. Burls seem to be exclusively woody. Inside a burl, the rings of the wood twist into lovely shapes that are prized by woodworkers for their beauty.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8117acsI thought the outside was beautiful, too.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7897acsGoldenrod.

In this season, my wildflower guide was not a lot of help. Without flowers on the plants, I couldn’t identify much along the trail.

But I could admire everything! Except critters. So few critters to admire…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then I came to the swamp, and suddenly there were animals everywhere.

Waterfowl swam placidly past. Coots. Mallards. A Northern Shoveler.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7986acsAnd turtles. Lots of turtles, basking in the 82° sunshine. There was plenty of plant material in the swamp for herbivores like turtles and ducks. Primary consumers, check.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7546acsOh, cool! Snakes!

Yes, that’s actually what I thought when I saw this sign. I’ve never seen either a copperhead or a cottonmouth. I was hoping to see one or both, though preferably at a safe distance. Not this day, though.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7802acsI found some droppings on the boardwalk. Why, oh why, you might ask. Why was I interested in this?

Because there was fur and bone in them, the calling card of something carnivorous like a fox or coyote. I never saw the animals themselves. For evidence of this component of the Heard ecosystem, a little scat had to do. Secondary consumers, check.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7785acsWheeling over the prairie, a Turkey Vulture. Even though I see them all the time back East, they somehow seemed appropriate in this dry environment. To our eyes, vultures are ugly birds with an ugly lifestyle – they eat dead animals. Scavengers like vultures play a really important role in consuming and passing on the nutrients that would otherwise remain locked inside an animal’s body after it dies. Scavengers, check.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7541acsNearby, a bracket fungus clung to another tree like the bookshelf of a woodland elf.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8012acsFungi are neither plant nor animal; they make up their own kingdom and play their own part in an ecosystem. Fungi’s role is to decompose organic matter.

The portion we see, the mushroom, is the fruiting body of the fungus.

Decomposers, check.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7915acsThe variety of plants in the swamp, cedar brake and prairie of the Heard Sanctuary was a marvel to behold. Studying it and photographing it kept me busy and happy on a warm December day.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7959acsAnimal life was less obvious. Turtles sunned themselves on logs, while birds sang in the trees. Scat revealed the presence of a carnivore, but the critters themselves were tucked away out of sight.

Soil, plants and animals; swamp, woodland and prairie. All the building blocks of an ecosystem were there in the Heard Sanctuary for me to see if I looked hard enough. A walking ecology lesson!