Adirondacks Carefree: Whiteface Mountain

Wherever my friends and I go, we try to get to the top of the highest mountain around. So on our Adirondack adventure, we were keen to get to the very top of the High Peaks. That would be Mt. Marcy, 5,344’ high. “How do we get there?” we wondered. Hike 7.4 miles through wilderness to the summit, then hike 7.4 miles back. Ok, maybe not.

Still, we were determined to get to the top of one of “The 46”, as the 46 High Peaks above 4,000’ are called. Folks who have successfully climbed all 46 are called “Adirondack 46ers.” We only had one day to get to the summit of a High Peak, and our experience on the relatively puny Pitchoff Mountain taught us not to take these mountains lightly. What to do?

Enter Whiteface Mountain, 4,867’ tall, the fifth highest in the state of New York. There’s a road that does 4,600’ of the work for you, with an elevator that takes tourists the rest of the way. How hard could it be?

Keep reading!

Adirondacks Carefree: Easy Living

Make your heart like a lake, with a calm, still surface, and great depths of kindness.   – Lao Tzu

Mountains are hard, stony, unforgiving. Nothing comes easily on a mountain. Gentle paths are soon strewn with rocks, small boulders must be climbed, and always the trail goes up, up, up. Until it goes down, and usually that’s worse. No question, mountains are hard work.

This summer, my friends and I answered the call of New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Forty-six peaks over 4000’. Lots of hiking and climbing and days filled with vigorous activity beckoned.

But…

This year’s destination came with a bonus – a lake.

Lakes are soft, fluid, soothing. Doing nothing comes very easily on a lake. You want to linger, trail your fingers through the cool water, listen to the cry of the loons, soak up the sunset. The living is easy on a lake.

This was a BIG lake. Our rental house perched on the shores of Upper Saranac Lake. With 37 miles of shoreline, that’s a lot of lake. The heck with peak-bagging! We were looking forward to relaxing by the water. It would be restful. Restorative. Carefree.

Adirondack Park is a long drive from Philadelphia, north through three mountain ranges. Our own Poconos, the Catskills, and finally the Adirondacks. The High Peaks rose around us, cascading long ribbons of waterfalls into narrow lakes, thoroughly distracting the driver.

Concentration returned on the three miles of twisting dirt road that led to our home away from home deep in the woods. Ahhh!

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more.   – John Burroughs

Early mornings on the dock were a joy. With cameras and journal, I settled myself there after breakfast each day, to write and immerse myself in the peace.

One morning dawned draped in mist.

A Common Merganser swam into view. With her were five fluffy ducklings. Two got a ride on mama’s back, dozing sleepily, carefree. The others paddled along in her wake. I watched as the lovely little family passed in front of me and disappeared into the distance. I wondered where they were going? Maybe Mom knew a good diner for breakfast?

The Merganser story took a turn two mornings later, after a nighttime thunderstorm with winds and heavy rains.  Now Mama Merganser returned – with just one duckling in tow.

I told myself that the time had come for the other ducklings to be out on their own, or perhaps this was a different family altogether. But in my heart, I know that’s not so. Not all the young ones of any species survive their youth.

But this young duckling was handsome and strong, and wonderful to watch.

Above the water’s surface, the mayflies danced, carefree.

If there’s water, there must be kayaking… I’d dreamed for months about long solo paddles in the early morning or evening, sneaking up on loons, perhaps even catching a moose as it drank at the edge of the water. One look at the dock crushed that dream. I’ve yet to master the art of dockside kayak launches. Even with three of us, it’s a challenge. Alone? No, that wasn’t going to happen.

However, my friends agreed to try the two kayaks out with me one still morning.

Don first…

And then, reluctantly, Robb. These kayaks were much narrower and longer than the boat he’s used to, and it took quite a while before he got the confidence to paddle more than two strokes at a time.

Once he got the hang of it, though, he was the king of the lake.

We weren’t out long, but it gave me the chance to get that obligatory view-from-the-kayak shot.

Peeking around the point as Don paddles back to our dock.

Bird feeders in the back yard drew lots of feathered friends. Some were birds we don’t get to see often. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Black-capped Chickadees (we get Carolina Chickadees) and lots of Purple Finches. Ruby-throated hummingbirds visited.

Underneath the feeders, though? That was the domain of the red squirrels.

The time was rare when there was no squirrel under the feeders. Not much bigger than a chipmunk, red squirrels are much smaller than our common gray squirrels. These jaunty little fellows have a white ring around their eyes and a black stripe along the side of their bellies.  We never grew tired of watching their antics.

Did someone mention chipmunks? Yes, they visited from time to time, too. Tiny but fierce battles broke out between the two tribes when a chipmunk and a squirrel both wanted the prime real estate. Surprisingly, these war games usually ended with the squirrel fleeing the chipmunk.

Each day ended lakeside on the dock, awaiting the sunset. Occasionally a highly polished classic wooden boat would motor by. A classic Adirondack sight.

We looked for the Milky Way one evening. We didn’t see it. Perhaps it was not yet dark enough. Still, there were an amazing number of stars. I can only imagine the sky in the middle of the night, when we were lost in our dreams, in our lakeside reverie.

Oh! For the lazy lakeside living! We could have happily passed the days by the water’s edge, relaxed and carefree.

But…

The mountains are calling and I must go.   – John Muir

On the Shores of the Inland Sea

Summer morning, Lake Michigan. The path to adventure beckons! Come, spend a day with me. Let us see what treasures we find along the shores of the inland sea.

Silky soft sand gives way to an endless ribbon of pebbles.

Like snowflakes, no two pebbles are alike. Each glistening gem shines in its own unique light.

Patches of wildflowers flourish in the dune meadows.

In the marsh at the foot of the breakwater, a Great Blue Heron stalks his prey.

Ahhh – lunch!

In these parts, the forests march clear to the edge of the water. Fallen timber abounds, exposed to the wind, waves and sun, weathering into marvelous driftwood tableaus.

What have we here? Critter tracks run like zippers up and down the sand. Tiny tracks mean tiny critters. It’s likely this was made by a bug.

Along the path, grasses dance in the breezes that sweep over the dunes.

Afternoon lengthens into lingering evening. Cocktail hour for bees! For tonight’s drink, we offer the nectar of Russian sage.

The glassy calm waters of the big lake entice the paddler to sea with the offer of a golden sunset.

In the glow of the evening, a sailboat awaits tomorrow’s adventures.

The sun sets on Lake Michigan, an enchanting finish to a delightful summer day spent on the shores of the inland sea.

The Tinicum Tattler

Hello, my darlings! C’est moi, Madame Catbird, gossip maven extraordinaire! I’ve got all the latest celebrity dish from John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge for you, right here on KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio.

It’s the season for love, and all that results from love, and don’t I have the juiciest tidbits for you today!

Everyone, simply everyone, is talking about the handsome young Prothonotary Warbler laying it all out for romance in the impoundment. He’s doing everything right, dearies! He’s found the most-coveted property in town, and decorated with the best moss.

Look at him singing his blessed little heart out.

It’s not all about home decor and show tunes, though, and he isn’t afraid to show his masculine side! He’s carried on a relentless aerial battle with the local tree swallow families in the vain hope of having the tony neighborhood of Horseshoe Cove to himself.

The paparazzi have been camped on the doorstep of our golden boy for weeks. Who will be first to get that money shot of the lucky Mrs. Prothonotary? Only time will tell… but time is running out if Mr. P. hopes to hear the patter of tiny feet in his waterfront mansion this summer!

Guess who else was caught on film this week, my lovelies? Yes, those reclusive songsters, the Marsh Wrens.  We are frequently graced with their operatic voices, but not their feathered fabulousness. They much prefer the quiet life at home in their posh upscale development, The Reeds.

Not so now. The Wrens are busy, busy, busy, plucking bugs from the spatterdock and carrying them off to The Reeds. Why, could it be? Do they have a bun in the oven – or chicks in the nest? Madame Catbird thinks so!

Surprising to hear that the Least Bitterns have been out and about in public recently. They are notoriously camera-shy, don’t you know, dearies.

They’ve taken the art of dodging the flashbulbs to new lengths.

“You can’t see me,” says our plumed contortionist.

“You can’t see me!”

“Can you?”

Let’s leave them their little illusions, shall we?

Rumor has it the Least Bitterns are also raising a family in the oh-so-exclusive conclave of The Reeds.

Madame hears that a few very lucky fans have caught glimpses of the bouncing baby Bitterns!

There’s a new star in town, my darlings, and he’s got the Missus and the little ones in tow. It’s been many a year since the Common Gallinules saw fit to raise a family in our neck of the woods. Why, back then they were known as the Common Moorhens, mere hoi polloi.

Yet, here they are now, with a distinguished new name, mingling with the beautiful people. Perhaps there’s a little scandal lurking in the Gallinules’ family tree, no?

Clearly Mr. Gallinule now has exacting standards, and this elite community has met them. He’s made sure to show off his lovely mate and their four fabulous offspring frequently, parading them past the persistent paparazzi at every opportunity.

Ah, a little escargot for the little cherub. Parents may crave the spotlight, but the little ones are little ones, after all, and their needs must be met.

Mother and father alike see to it that the youngsters experience only the finest haute cuisine. Aren’t they just adorably ungainly at this age?

Madame Catbird has many, many more delicious morsels to dish about. You say you must have more celebrity goodies? Now, now! Patience, darlings! Moderation in all things, don’t you know?

Do tune in next time to find out just who has all the bees abuzz, won’t you? Madame Catbird awaits! Until we meet again, on KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio.

Au revoir!

Extraordinary Birds, Bayshore Edition

In search of avian wonders out of the ordinary, we turn now to the sparkling shores of the Delaware Bay. A large expanse of sandy beaches and saltwater marshes along the New Jersey side of the bay attracts many feathered marvels.

I went to the Bayshore one sunny May day to see migrating shorebirds. I’m easily distracted. A side trip to Cape May Point State Park occupied most of my morning.

You’d be distracted, too, by the Glossy Ibis I found at the edge of a pond. His deep burgundy plumage shimmered in the sun as he stalked, slow and stately, along the shore.

Everything about an ibis is long: long legs, long neck, long bill. All the better to eat with, my dear!

Distracted again, this time at Heislerville WMA. Bald Eagles, once endangered, are now common in some areas of the region. But an eagle posing on the roof of a nearby house? Extraordinary!

Alongside the road, a gravel, shell and grass area serves as a parking lot for visitors. It also serves as a nesting area for the local Killdeer population. We didn’t see this little mother when we pulled in; three feet to the right would have been disastrous.

The Killdeer was incubating eggs right there in the parking area. She was none too happy about our near-miss and our presence, so I took my photos quickly and left her in peace.

Wait, that’s not a bird! Did I mention I’m easily distracted? Clouded Sulphur.

Well, finally! Distraction-free at Reeds Beach.  There was no shortage of shorebirds.

And gulls. Laughing Gulls are quite common in my neck of the woods. The sheer numbers of them clustered at the water’s edge was extraordinary. Extraordinarily noisy, too.

And comical. Heads down to feed, the gulls resembled a tail-feathered basket-weave fence. One poor guy in the middle had a complaint.

“Hey! Quit stepping on my toes!”

Ruddy Turnstones were dramatic in russet, brown and black plumage.

The stars of the show were the Red Knots. This little shorebird travels immense distances every year from wintering grounds at the tip of South America, to breed in the far north. Along the way, having lost much of its body weight to the rigors of flight, it joins other long-distance migrants at the Delaware Bay, to feast upon the fat-laden eggs of the horseshoe crab.

Horseshoe crabs come ashore to lay their eggs at the same time the shorebirds arrive. Unlike this unfortunate crab, most remain right side up and survive to breed another year. Their numbers are dwindling though, due to sustained over-harvesting. Bad news for the shore birds, especially the Red Knots.

Hey, wait! Was it something I said? Come back!

And back they come, in a big hurry to get to those eggs.

There is concern for a number of shorebird species, but the Red Knot population is in the worst shape. In an attempt to protect and conserve these birds, scientists have been tracking their numbers and movements. Spotters were posted at Reeds Beach, recording band colors and numbers. Only time will tell if conservation efforts succeed or fail.

This Red Knot has been captured, weighed and released, and wears some distinctive jewelry to commemorate the experience. Green is the color used for birds in the United States. I saw orange bands as well. Those birds were banded in Argentina!

From Argentina to New Jersey, and on to the far north, shorebirds undertake extraordinarily long journeys, twice, every year. The horseshoe crabs along Delaware Bayshore provide the fuel they need to keep going. Its sandy shores are the perfect places to savor the wonder of these extraordinary birds.

Extraordinary Birds, Woodland Edition

Extraordinary (adjective): 1. beyond what is usual, ordinary, regular, or established. 2. exceptional in character, amount, extent, degree, etc.; noteworthy; remarkable. SYNONYMS: uncommon, singular, rare, phenomenal, special. (Dictionary.com)

If the commonplace birds that frequent our everyday world are “ordinary”, then “extraordinary” birds must be those that are unusual or rare visitors in our lives.

What’s ho-hum to one birder might be remarkable to another, however. Here are a few of the extraordinary birds I saw in the woods this spring, each one more special than the last.

I see Yellow-rumped Warblers like the one above all the time. Common, yes, but far from ordinary.  Because there’s no such thing as an ordinary bird. Yellow-rumps in breeding plumage are quite striking.

Yellow Warblers are also at Heinz NWR in large numbers in the spring. They’re plain, but very bright. And they are always cheerfully singing their little heads off.

In the Pine Barrens, a Prairie Warbler spent a long time perched  at the top of a pitch pine in the sun.

Then he started caroling. Prairie Warblers are more frequently heard than seen, for me at least.

Back at Heinz, an Eastern Kingbird at the water’s edge.

I see Baltimore Orioles from time to time in the spring. If one oriole is good, two must be better!

Spring migration brought the warbler hit parade to Heinz. Magnolia Warbler.

I don’t see Black-throated Green Warblers too often, and had never photographed one before. Catching this one was tough. It hung around for a long time, but like most warblers, it never stayed in one place, and was always just a little too far away.

Canada Warbler. Another bird new to my photo collection, though not my life list.

I can’t show you my favorite warbler of the spring. There was a brilliant Blackburnian Warbler in a treetop at Heinz. I’ve only caught brief glimpses of Blackburnians in Michigan. This time I got a good look at the bird, but you’ll have to take my word for it. He didn’t come close enough for a portrait.

Rarer still was this bright confection in Higbee Beach WMA in New Jersey. It’s a Yellow-breasted Chat, only the second one I’ve ever seen. I was shooting here from a tall observation platform at treetop level, the perfect perch from which to watch this warbler sing and dance.

Walking along the path at Cape May Point State Park, I spotted a flash of bright blue. Bluebird? Blue Jay? Tree Swallow?

Nope!

At the edge of the woods, a Blue Grosbeak was feeding on grass seeds. I’ve never seen one before. That makes this a life bird, the first one of its species I’d ever spotted.

Warblers to orioles, kingbirds to grosbeaks, there’s no such thing as an ordinary bird. They’re all special in their own way.

How extraordinary!

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!