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

The Turtle 200

Critter Radio Logo v3Welcome back, race fans, to the annual Turtle 200! It’s been a year since the armored beasts took to the track. We have a good lineup of reptilian racers for you today, all tuned up and ready to roar down the track at a breakneck quarter-mile an hour. You can hear all the action right here on KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio. Tension is mounting!

160526_PA HNWR Morning Turtles_8388acaThere’s quite a crowd watching the action from the turtle bleachers. They crane their necks for a better view as the competitors plod past.

160526_PA HNWR Morning Turtles_8379Every stadium has that one guy, right? Big, pushy, late to the party, he has to climb over everybody to get to his seat. Today it’s a Red-bellied Turtle throwing his weight around amongst the smaller patrons.

The Red-bellied Turtle, sometimes called a Red-bellied Cooter, likes deep water with a sandy or muddy bottom and lots of aquatic vegetation. They sometimes hang out in the sun with Painted Turtles and Red-eared Sliders, but they are much larger. They are distinguished by their reddish plastron, the lower shell. Red-bellied Turtles are listed as a threatened species in Pennsylvania. Loss of habitat is taking its toll, as is nest predation, road mortality when females come on land to lay eggs, and competition with the exotic Red-eared Slider.

140926_Forsythe NWR_3589acsHere we go, fans! Coming into the first turn is an Eastern Box Turtle. Surprising to see him in the lead. Box Turtles are known to be particularly slow, which is saying something when you’re talking about turtles. Look at the domed carapace (upper shell) on this guy!

140926_Forsythe NWR_3606acsLooks like he’s made the turn safely. He was really pulling those Gs though!

140926_Forsythe NWR_3618acsThe look on his face says it all.

160531_PA HNWR Evening_9169acsThis Painted Turtle shows some uniquely beautiful markings as he strains his neck going around the curve.

FUN FACT: A few species of turtles have an eye stripe like this. A fellow photographer pointed out that, no matter what angle the head and neck are, that eye line is always parallel with the horizon.

Wait! The Caution flag is up!

160526_PA HNWR Morning Turtles_8341acsSeems we’ve got a three turtle pileup of Red-eared Sliders on the track.

Red-eared Sliders look quite similar to Painted Turtles, and the two species frequently sun together. The red stripe on the side of the Slider’s head gives it away. They don’t belong here; they are native to the Mississippi River Basin. But they are popular pets, and frequently released into the wild, so that they have become established throughout the country. They often out-compete other turtles, the hallmark of an invasive species.

HNWR Snapper_6644 ASNow we’ve got a green flag, we’re back to racing. A snapping turtle has lumbered into the lead.

This is one BIG turtle! They can reach 60 pounds. Everything about them, from their heads to their claws, is huge. You don’t want to get near their powerful jaws.

HNWR Snapper_6657 aThe Snapper meanders on down the track, dragging his very impressive tail behind him.

06222016_DE Bombay Hook Terrapin_2130acsThe White flag is up – it’s the final lap. A Diamondback Terrapin moseys toward the finish line.

She’s almost there…

06222016_DE Bombay Hook Terrapin_1481acs…AND she’s pulling over for a pit stop. In an actual pit, which she’s digging herself to lay her eggs. Right in the road. Track managers frown on this type of behavior; it makes a mess for the grounds crew to clean up. In the meantime, this beautiful female has cost herself the trophy.

Diamondback Terrapins are turtles of brackish estuaries, tidal creeks and marshes. They are the only turtles in the country that live in water with a salt content between that of fresh and salty seawater. Population numbers are dropping due to habitat loss, and predation. Females crossing roads to lay eggs are killed by cars, they are collected illegally for the pet trade, and frequently drown in commercial crab traps. Numerous conservation programs are trying to help these beautiful turtles.

160526_PA HNWR Morning Turtles_8110acsNow another Snapper is gliding toward the finish line…

Oh, the drama! The Snapper had the finish line in his sights, only to be passed by a Painted Turtle in the last few yards as the checkered flag waves.

140926_Forsythe NWR_3555acsThere’s your winner, folks: the Painted Turtle has taken the coveted Turtle 200 Cup!

That’s another fine race in the history books. Don’t miss next year’s competition, brought to you by KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio. It’s sure to be another nail-biter!

We leave you now, as always, with the words of the incomparable Ogden Nash:

The turtle lives ‘twixt plated decks

Which practically conceal its sex.

I think it clever of the turtle

In such a fix to be so fertile.

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.

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?

The Guest Request Fest

Critter Radio Logo v3Well, hel-loooo to all you birds, bugs and beasties out there in Critter Land. You’re tuned to KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio. I’m Opal White, that’s right, white hot and bright. So glad you could join me tonight for the Guest Request Fest.

Yes, boys and gulls, it’s time for you loyal listeners to let us know what you want to hear. Don’t wait, don’t hesitate! Call, text or tweet now with your requests. Miss Opal will make all your dreams take flight, that’s right.

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3540acsWe’ll start right in on the ground floor, shall we? Master Grasshopper brings our first entreaty of the hour: “Kung Fu Fighting”.

150711_PA Nockamixon Cliffs_1293acsThe butterfly brigade chimes in with this weighty wish from slim Ms. Tiger Swallowtail. She’s an edgy sort of dame, that’s right. Her fave tune? “Edge of Seventeen”.

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3502acsFor a Red-spotted Purple, what could be more appropriate than “Blue On Black”? How apt.

150722_DE Bombay Hook_1761aWell, what have we here – a twin tweet! A pair of lookalikes indeed, the Monarch…

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3764acs… and the Viceroy.

Monarchs taste bad, Viceroys don’t, but most butterfly gourmets will shun both. Viceroys are big copycats, and more than once that has saved their silly little – oh, excuse me, family show, that’s right.

Let’s get back to their song, “Me and My Shadow”, shall we?

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3705acsIs that the phone ringing? Yes, I think it is. And who have we here? Why it’s the Rev. Green Frog, he of the roly-poly peepers. What dark secrets have been confessed to the good preacher?

He wants to hear “Your Lying Eyes”.

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3628acsOn the other side of town, someone is lonely tonight. Jeremiah Bullfrog feels he’s lost his only friend. Here’s a little ditty for his melancholy blues as he contemplates the vastness of the pond – “It’s Not Easy Being Green”.

Miss Opal could cheer up this sprite, that’s right.

150804_PA HNWR Dragonfly_3428acsMr. Pondhawk has a request…

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3557acs…and wait, we’ve got Mrs. Pondhawk on the other line. What a lovely couple – they’ve both asked for that romantic oldie, “I Got You Babe”.

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3675acsWe have time for one more rhythmic requisition, and it comes tonight from a croaker immersed in self reflection. “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”, how true!

Oh, my, my, Miss Opal hears her theme song; it’s always too soon to leave you. Another splendiferous edition of the musical petition, the Guest Request Fest, has come to a close.

Until next time, I’m Opal White, that’s right, white hot and bright, and this is KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio. I bid you farewell with Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, like me, doing it “My Way”.

150804_PA HNWR Great Egret_3208 acs“Egrets, I’ve had a few…”