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!

A Shore Thing: A Day For the Birds

160928_nj-oc-sunrise_9034acsThe sun rises on a new day, setting the sea aflame in glittering gold. This beauty is of no consequence to a Herring Gull. Neither is the turbulent surf. Just another day at the office.

160928_nj-oc-sunrise_9062acsTaking wing and then diving, he expertly snatches breakfast on the go.

160921_nj-devils-island-kayak_9281acsOut on the marsh, Great Egrets congregate. Three stand watch while others attend to their beauty routine. Behind them, Snowy Egrets look for a midmorning snack.

160921_nj-devils-island-kayak_9348acsRuffled by the wind but not the bridge traffic in the distance, a Great Blue Heron surveys a wide expanse of saltmarsh cordgrass.

160926_nj-middle-thoroughfare-kayak_9652adsOn the mudflats, Yellowlegs forage.

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.)

160928_nj-strathmere-point-birds_9566acsThe beach is a ballroom brimming with tuxedoed birds. Black and white with orange-red accents, these Black Skimmers (front) and American Oystercatchers (rear) await the next dance.

160928_nj-strathmere-point-oystercatcher_9376acsMy, what big eyes you have, grandmother! The American Oystercatcher enhances its clownlike appearance with oversized pink feet and a long red bill.

160928_nj-strathmere-point-oystercatcher_9793acsAhhh, 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.

160928_nj-strathmere-point-skimmer_9761acsBut 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!

160928_nj-strathmere-point-oystercatcher_0350acsAfter lunch, it’s time for preening. An American Oystercatcher goes to great lengths to keep those feathers clean.

160928_nj-strathmere-point-skimmer_9917acsAlso a contortionist, the Black Skimmer turns upside down to get those hard to reach spots.

160928_nj-strathmere-point-skimmer_9491acsThere go the Skimmers. Evening is the time for them to feed along the ocean’s edge, knifing their bills through the calm water in search of fish.

160918_nj-oc-beach_8353acsJoining the Skimmers on this lovely evening are the Sanderlings. These small shorebirds chase retreating waves down the beach, while probing for tiny invertebrates and crustaceans.

160918_nj-oc-beach_8485acsOnly to flee from the incoming wave in a blur of constant motion. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth…

…in the sunset glow of another fine day at the beach.

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?