Friday, September 30, 2011

In the Stretch

If you compare this photo of a great blue heron stretching with the grackle from yesterday, you'll see they use an all but identical technique.  In the hours (and I mean hours!) I have watched this particular great blue heron, I have only seen it stretch one time, so it is not something they do regularly.  The most noticeable characteristic when you are watching is how it is done in slow motion.  When you think about how humans stretch, though, it is usually a slowed-down process also.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Common Grackle

All birds stretch I guess, but I have only seen it a few times.  They don't raise their wings like a human would raise  their arms, though.  They actually lower their wing, separating all the wing feathers as they do so.  They always stretch the leg on the same side with the wing, so that they are left standing on one leg.  Because of the need to remain balanced, they perform the whole act in slow motion.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

American Goldfinch

You wouldn't think of them as water birds, but there is a flock of goldfinches that return every year to the marsh and river side.  They are fearless little birds, often landing closer that 11-1/2 feet from where I'm standing.  I know it is less than that because that is as close as my telephoto lens will focus.

When the tide recedes and exposes the shoreline, they can be found in flocks picking among the exposed pea gravel.  It took me a long time to solve the mystery of what they found so attractive.  For a while, I thought it was the broken bits of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV).  I thought perhaps they needed some greens in their diet.  I would see them picking up the stems and appear to be eating them.  Then, one day I took a closer look at the SAV.  I now think they are attracted to the snails that can be found on grass.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Baltimore Oriole

The bird became associated with Lord Baltimore because of the similarity of it's coloring and the Calvert Shield.  Despite being the state bird of Maryland, I had never seen one until recently. 

It reminds me of an incident when I was a kid.  My grandfather came to visit and the family spent a day at the Bronx Zoo.  When we got to the giraffes exhibit, my grandfather leaned back scanning his eyes up the neck of the animal and remarked that he thought it was probably the biggest giraffe he had ever seen.  Being from rural Mississippi, I suspect it was also the only giraffe he had ever seen.

By the way, this is the best picture of a Baltimore Oriole I have ever taken...

Monday, September 26, 2011

Do The Wave

Sometimes I'll see something that has me laughing out loud.  If people could see me, they would think I was crazy.  After all, what would you think if you saw someone standing by himself in the middle of nowhere laughing?  Yeah, crazy.

I had just reached the beach and scanned the area to my right.  Down in the corner, I thought I was looking at a log in the water.  It turned out to be three ducks dithering close together, with their heads underwater.  Almost as soon as I saw them, a wave came in and caught one sideways and rolled it over and over right up on the shore.  You can see how far the wave carried it before it deposited it.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The River Seine

The Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at Solomons gathers data from the Patuxent River, sending out a crew of four people every few weeks during the warmer months to collect information on temperature, salinity, turbidity and other details about water quality.  They also gather information about the fish fry being produced by at least two species: the rockfish and it's prey, menhaden.  One of the sites they monitor along the river is the place where I film, so I have been able to talk to them a little bit about what they do.

In order to seine the shoreline for fish fry, someone has to take the end of the net out from shore as far as possible and bring the end around and back to the shore.  The seine is roughly an hundred feet in length.  On the day pictured here, Chris (the guy in the water), asked me if I had seen anything interesting lately.  I told him about the huge snapping turtle I had seen the day before.  Apparently unphased, he and the others set up their equipment and proceeded to seine the shoreline. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Swim at Your Own Risk

I see them all the time.  Snappers and other turtles.  After a while you see the irregularities in the water - even if it is just a head sticking up out of the water.  I don't think the river is loaded with them and there is no way of knowing, but this could be the same one that made the mud trail posted a couple of days ago.  It is facing into the tide and the water displacement makes it look like he might be bigger than he really is.  The arrow on the right marks where I think the crown of his shell is located and the arrow on the left marks the eddies produced from paddling his back feet.  Tomorrow, I'm going to post something I saw the day after taking this photo.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Waiting for the Tide

If the water isn't close enough - as it was in this case - you just have to hunker down and wait it out.  Here again, there is nothing to compare it to but, trust me, you wouldn't want to step on this turtle.  It was easily a foot across.  The only thing giving it away is it's form because, otherwise, it sure blends in.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Making Tracks

The tide can occasionally be so low that it exposes a mud flat at the mouth of Graham Creek by the bridge on Cheneyville Road.  I wish there was something to use for size comparison, but you'll have to take my word for it when I say that the troughs in this photo are roughly a foot wide.  They were made by a snapping turtle.  I didn't see it but I know it was a snapper because it is the only turtle in Maryland that can grow this large. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

High Jump

I watched a doe and her fawn cautiously navigating the shoreline one morning until they came to a dead fall.  The mother started to go around it by going into the river, but thought better of it and doubled back, where she jumped the tree with ease.  I thought the fawn would have trouble getting over it but, to my surprise, it also jumped the tree in a single bound.  You can see where ground level is in this photo where the fawn was caught in mid-jump.  If you look at the upper right, you can see the back of the doe higher up on the bank.  It also explains why you need such a high fence to keep them out of a garden.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On Edge

Usually, it is the surroundings that give a subject context.  In this photo, it is almost the opposite.  Would you have recognized the photo as depicting water and fog if the cormorant was absent from the picture?  When photographing something light like fog or snow, the camera will render whatever you point its light sensor at as middle gray.  If you take the reading from the darker water, then recompose the shot, it will render the fog lighter.  Conversely, you can also take a reading from the fog and add 1/2 -1 stop of exposure value if your camera has that ability.

Monday, September 19, 2011

In Your Face

I was out in the yard one day shooting with a macro lens when I felt something on my hand.  I looked down and there was the biggest jumping spider I had ever seen on the back of my hand.  Of course, my reaction was to shake it off.  It landed on the driveway, but didn't move.  I don't think it was hurt by the fall.  Since it was being so still, I laid down on the driveway and got right in the spider's face with the lens, getting as close as I could.  I wasn't using a tripod, which is usually an important accessory in close-ups, but was able to steady the camera on the driveway to avoid shaking.  This portrait reveals the spider as not so much a "monster" as kind of cute with his butch haircut. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Here is a close-up of a few of the webs shown in yesterday's post.  Aren't they amazing?  Frank Lloyd Wright may have had a natural talent for architecture, but he still had to back it with an education.  These orchard spiders were born with the innate ability to construct these marvels of engineering!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

It Takes A Village

Since we're on the subject of spiders...  A foggy morning a few years ago revealed something that had been there right along, but wasn't visible under dry conditions.  Along our driveway in a low bed of junipers was an entire city of spiders that had built the most amazing webs.  Despite the literally hundreds of nests, I couldn't find one spider to identify what species had built them.  It wasn't until a day or two later that I saw a few and determined they were orchard spiders.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Golden Orb Weaver 2

This is the same spider seen in yesterday's post.  I wanted the web to appear as a "floor" for a different take on the subject.  In this photo, the spider is cleaning up the web by discarding a previous meal.  (Down is actually left in the photo.)  Once an insect becomes trapped in the web, the spider moves in and injects a poison, then quickly wraps it in a silk cocoon.  It is amazing to watch how quickly the spider can spin the insect and wrap it within a few seconds.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Golden Orb Weaver

Okay, first of all, get over it.  It can't do anything to you.  It is just a picture.  Some people get sooo creeped out just looking at a picture of a spider.

I saw this beautiful golden orb weaver recently and couldn't help but admire the spider with it's inate ability to build a web that would be the envy of any architectect who has ever built a suspension bridge.  When you get over being scared of them long enough to think about what they do, you have to admire them.  They have to figure out spacially where to find several anchor sites so they build the nest in a vertical, flat plane.  One of the questions that arises in my mind is, How far can they see?

Look how this one has reinforced the center strand of it's web.  It looks like it may have added as many as ten strands to that part of the web.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

If I Had a Hammer

Here is why a kingfisher prefers to have soemthing hard nearby after it catches the fish.  It dispatches the fish by banging it against a hard surface.  I caught this one at the top of the swing with the fish straight up in the air. (Click on the photo to enlarge.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

What's the Catch?

Someone obligingly placed a couple of tall bamboo poles on the oppostie shore along the stretch of river where I film.  Osprey, red-winged blackbirds and kingfishers all enjoy using it as a perch, as it is the highest point along that shoreline, being surrounded by marsh grass.  The kingfishers will spot small fish from the perch, then plunge-dive to catch them.  Actually, they must be aware that the water isn't that deep along the shore because they alter their technique and dive much shallower. 

When they do catch a fish at that spot, however, they are faced with a dilemma because they will routinely beat the fish against something hard before they swallow it.  Since there is nothing that "fits the bill" on that side of the river, they will carry their catch all the way across the river, usually to the nearest dock and dispatch the fish on a piling. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Belted Kingfisher

Here is a better shot of the white spots in front of the eyes I mentioned in yesterday's post.  Kingfishers are one of the rare species where the female is more colorful than the male.  Males lack the orange belt of the female.  There are actually some kingfishers that do not catch fish, which seems like an oxymoron.  Belted kingfishers, like this female, sight-feed and so need clear water to see their prey.  They will survey the water from a high branch overlooking the water and plunge-dive to capture their prey.  If the water is muddied by heavy rain like we had this past week, they may switch to other foods such as amphibians and insects.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


It has always surprised me how many species of birds have no compunction about flying so low over the water that their wings will often touch.  It is one of the ways you learn to almost instantly recognize the species you are looking at.  Within a second you go down a mental list - color, pattern, body size, flight characteristics, etc. - to identify the bird.  One of the things I don't like about filming kingfishers is the little white spot in front of their eye.  It makes it appear as though the eye has been blown out - then you realize it isn't even the eye you are looking at.  But, scientists believe kingfishers, when about to dive, use the two white spots in front of the eyes as sighting devices along the line of the bill to fix their prey and, by doing so, possibly to correct for the refraction of water.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Its a Big World After All

Each species of bird has it's own personality.  Kingfishers always strike me as happy birds and always seem to be busy.  There is always something to do and somewhere to go.  That is why I like this image which includes the environment the kingfisher lives in.  It reinforces it's bright personality, but also hints at how small a bird they are in a big world.  They nest in burrows that they excavate in vertical banks up to ten feet long.  I'm not sure where they find suitable nesting sites on the Patuxent, but I'll always see three or four over the course of a summer.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Could It Be...?

I was going to make yesterday's post the last regarding hummingbirds for a while, but something happened yesterday morning that I just had to relate.  I was sitting out on the front porch.  The hummingbird feeder hangs down at the end of the porch within sight.  All of a sudden a hummingbird flew up to within two feet of my face, hovered there and chittered at me, than flew over to the feeder.  When I continued to sit there, she flew back to me, chittered again and returned to the feeder, then flew to a nearby branch and landed.  I went over to look and the feeder was empty.  You don't think...   Naaahh!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ruby-throated Hummingbird VI

By chance one day, I caught a hummingbird trying to "situate" it's tongue.  The thicker section near the base of the tongue is probably part of the hyoid apparatus mentioned in yesterday's post.  Their tongues have long grooves and, as they lap nectar, capillary action moves the nectar up the tongue to the mouth without having to suck.  Woodpeckers also have a similar apparatus.  Surprisingly, no hummingbirds are found on any other continents beside North and South America.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Ruby-throated Hummingbird V

This is one of the nicest images of a hummingbird I have taken and it was unplanned.  I was waiting in readiness to take it's picture when it came to the feeder, but it landed instead on a nearby branch.  It's head was haloed against a little patch of blue sky revealed through the deep shadows of the woods behind the bird, so close it nearly filled the frame (which is saying something for such a small bird).  Perhaps you have never seen a hummingbird at rest.

This sideview is an opportunity to mention their amazingly long tongues.  A stretchy attachment called the hyoid apparatus allows the hummer to extend it's tongue beyond the bill by about the same length as the bill.  The position of the hyoid apparatus is shown in yellow in the inset.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hummingbirds and Trumpet Vines

I have lost count of the times I have laughed aloud at some little comedy unfolding before me as I was out filming.  One involved a hummingbird which would regularly visit the bright orange/red flowers of the trumpet creeper along the edge of the Patuxent.  The blossoms usually have a horizontal orientation like the one pictured.  The flower tube was so long that, to reach the back with it's tongue, the hummer had to force it's way in to a point where the flower became so restricted, the hummer could no longer move it's wings.  The weight of the bird would then cause the blossom, like an elevator car, to drop towards the ground and the hummingbird would back out to try again.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Perfect Picture

"As I watched my pond one summer morning, intent on learning what attracted so many deer to its shores, the mind apparently chose its own moment for making a perfect picture, a masterpiece, which should hang in its woodsy frame on my mental wall forever."   - William J. Long in "How Animals Talk"

We all have them.  An album full of vivid and unforgettable mental images no one else has ever seen.  And though we might use a thousand words to describe one of these to another, they would never do justice to the memory.

In one sense, we are the richest people that have ever lived upon the face of the earth.  In another, we are all paupers alongside those who had next to nothing a hundred or two years ago.  For they were much more in tune - not with itunes or the mall or a host of other activities that come between us and the world we live in - but with the simple pleasures that cannot be taken away and bring peace to the soul.

Take down your album once in a while and enjoy again the images that no one else truly can.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Ruby-throated Hummingbird IV

A hummingbird's legs are very short and it's feet are small and are not designed for walking.  The relatively long toes are good for gripping and for preening.  Even for something as simple as turning around on a branch, the hummingbird will take wing and turn while hovering rather than try to negotiate a turn with it's feet.  

I had a friend whose brother called him one day and asked him what he was doing.  He told him he was watching a hummingbird sitting on a branch, to which the brother replied, "It can't be a hummingbird.  Hummingbirds don't have any feet."

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ruby-throated Hummingbird III

Hummingbirds do not migrate as a group, but individually.  The males, the first to leave, migrate a couple of weeks earlier than the females.  They may, in fact, already be gone from this area since I haven't seen any males lately.  The females leave next, making their way to the Gulf of Mexico where they make a non-stop nocturnal flight after recuperating and bulking up.  The young of the year do not leave with the females, but travel the same routes later on their own, making their trip to the ancestral grounds without ever having seen them before.  The migration routes are not learned and science still does not know what guidance system they use to make their incredible journey.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Ruby-throated Hummingbird II

I didn't realize until I began to post this photo how it is almost a duplicate of yesterday's image, even though quite a bit of time had passed between capturing the two.  Notwithstanding, I would like to make a couple of photography-related comments and a couple of species-related comments.

To freeze a hummingbird's wing, the shutter speed should be in excess of 1/1000th of a second, which requires a good deal of light.  In the shady area where our feeder is located in the fading afternoon light, the best I could manage in this image was 1/180th second - slow enough to make their wings disappear.  But, if you happen to catch the wing at it's apex of movement when it is about to return in the opposite direction, you can record some semblance of the wing.  You can't time this, however, if you can catch it, at least you won't have a wingless body floating in air.

Also, the better built the lens, the more pleasingly rendered an out-of-focus background will appear.  This is because more leaves are used to manufacture the shutter, causing the "bokeh" (the blurred circles in the background) to appear rounder and more pleasing.

I've said more than I meant to and I'll save the species-related comments for tomorrow.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

My wife and I have had a feeder for years and I have tried various means of filming hummingbirds with mixed success.  Until yesterday, though, I have never been able to get two birds in one shot.  As most of you probably know, they are very intolerant of other birds coming to "their" honeypot.  In this case, the bird on the right (I am fairly sure) is the offspring of the female on the left.  Young birds have a certain look to them; a little disheveled in appearance, but their feathers are nice and vibrant and fresh.  Over the next few days, I will post a couple more pictures.  [Tip: If you click on the photo, you can view an enlarged version.]