Most people celebrate our national day for giving thanks with a feast that centers on the Turkey. Naturally, the turkeys have other ideas, and seek refuge on this holiday. Just as naturally, my friends and I seek Refuge to see turkeys and other birds, by spending our Thanksgiving weekend at National Wildlife Refuges. Continue reading
Confined as I was to plant and rock photography all winter, I ached to go somewhere known for wildlife. Bombay Hook NWR in Delaware beckoned. My Facebook feed had been full of close-up photos of the wonders to be seen there. Foxes. Owls. Meadow birds like Bobwhites, Horned Larks and Meadowlarks. Raccoons. Foxes. Bald Eagles by the dozens. Glossy Ibises. Avocets and Black-necked Stilts. Did I mention foxes?
Getting to Bombay Hook felt jinxed. Something always went wrong. In January, a trip was planned with a group of photographer friends – and it was too rainy. In March, a trip was planned with another friend – and he was under the weather.
Finally, in mid-April, all the stars aligned, and I made my much-anticipated visit to Bombay Hook. The landscape was still wearing its winter coat of dried tan grasses. No Bobwhites or Horned Larks lurked in the meadows and grassy areas.
I set out on the Wildlife Drive to see what I might find further afield.
A handful of American Avocets graced Raymond Pool. Most of them were too far off to photograph. One of the downsides of wildlife photography on a budget. I was lucky that two wandered a little closer.
Photography at this distance is marginal at best with my 400mm lens – I’m really stretching the limit here. But I do love this bird. Avocets are one of the bird species that we don’t see at John Heinz NWR, but they are common just a little farther south in Delaware. These birds alone are worth the trip. I also saw two Black-necked Stilts, another mid-sized sandpiper that are a Bombay Hook specialty. They didn’t want to pose, however.
No sign of foxes yet. I wondered what I might see on the Salt Marsh boardwalk trail.
Sunbathing in vultures serves two purposes. At night, they keep their body temperature at a lower level, and so often spread their swings in the sun to warm up. It was one o’clock in the afternoon, though, so it seems more likely this fellow was drying his feathers.
Far across Raymond Pool I saw several Bald Eagles standing in the shallow water, looking down. This was curious behavior. Were they looking for fish? Admiring their reflections?
Did I ever see my fox? Nope. I drove through the meadows near Finis Pool, hoping to see one, or perhaps a Horned Lark or Meadowlark. No such luck. Nor did I see owls at Bear Swamp Pool.
Wildlife photography is challenging. You have to put yourself in the right place at the right time. Then you have to be patient enough to wait in one spot until the critters get within camera range. That means ignoring all of Bombay Hook except that one spot, something I can’t bring myself to do. I might miss something!
So I make the most of the opportunities that present themselves. Like this Lesser Yellowlegs, doing a little yoga. After a winter spent too close to home, it was good to stretch my wings a little. Just being at Bombay Hook, watching the critters do their thing, was enough for me.
The third time’s definitely the charm!
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind…
The last few months I’ve been in a sort of creative funk.
Not now. I find my enthusiasm for photography is awakening as the earth awakens.
Lady Spring has arrived, and I can see her beauty!
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.
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 Now” by Jimmy Nash
Welcome 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!
Every 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.
Here 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!
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!
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.
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.
She’s almost there…
…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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
We 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.
Stepping 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.
Like 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.
Don 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? It’s been all Appalachians and kayak adventures on The Wild Edge this summer. Shouldn’t there be birds? Where can they be hiding?
Are the songbirds singing in the sun while I am inside in meetings and museums and antique shops?
Are the shorebirds and herons wading in wild wet places while I am at forts and canals and cliffs?
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?
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?
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?
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 –
Where is the wildlife photographer?
Well, 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.
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?
He wants to hear “Your Lying Eyes”.
On 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.
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”.