Monday, December 31, 2012

Relax and Enjoy the Ride

I remember as a kid, I suffered under the mistaken notion that birds could not turn their heads when they were in flight. I guess I never watched them that closely, but I figured they were so taken up with concentrating on flying, that they couldn't be looking around. Where do we get these ideas? That is like the friend of mine whose brother called and asked what he was doing. He told him he was watching a hummingbird sitting in a tree. His brother retorted that it couldn't be a hummingbird because they don't have any feet.

By chance, I caught this tern one day scratching it's neck as it was flying along. I can't chew gum and talk at the same time and this thing is having a leisurely scratch while flying! That was an eye opener.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Happy Ducks

What is it about certain birds that seems to convey an emotion?  When I think of Northern Cardinals, my mind conjures up a very dour and sullen bird, almost always out of sorts with the world and ready to fight with anyone.  Maybe you haven't seen enough cardinals to know this about them, but they are one of the nastiest birds I know personality wise. Ducks, on the other hand, always seem to have a happy disposition.  Who could look at this duck and not think it happy?

This is one of my, "Oh, if only," moments. This is the same duck in both photos. I love the circular swirls of water left behind as the duck paddled past me. And, I love the smile on the face of the duck in the first image.  Oh, if only both elements were in the same photo. Wouldn't that have been a winner! I still like both of them, though.

Here is another one. I think it is training to direct traffic. You can't tell me this isn't a happy duck...

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Like Water Off a Ducks Back

All birds seem to spend an inordinate amount of time preening, but what is true of all birds is even more true of water birds. Waterfowl distribute oil from glands over the surface of their feathers for the purpose of waterproofing and, since they have to do it with the tip of their bill, it seems to take up a large portion of their day.

Distributed properly, water cannot penetrate the oil in the feathers and, hence, we get the saying, "Like water off a ducks back."

You can see in this photo of a male American Black Duck how well this works. This species is closely related to the Mallard and often interbreeds, creating hybrids that can make identification difficult.

Here is a Mallard male for comparison.

The actions of this female Black Duck dunking herself was freaking out a school of fish over on the left of the photo where you can see some of them jumping out of the way. These two breeds - mallards and black ducks -  are not particularly spooky (at least when hunting season is past) and they are a lot of fun to watch.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Gulls Just Want to Have Fun

Gulls are a highly opportunistic species which have adapted well to human habitations. When fish get scarce in winter, you are just as likely to see them in the parking lot of a local mall scavenging for food. Often, it seems like they are more willing to expend energy chasing another bird with a bit of food rather than finding food on their own.

That is what you see on the Bay too.  They will shadow flocks of ducks trying to steal the food the ducks have foraged from their dives. If you look carefully, you can see the reason for the flock taking off in the picture above. There is a gull a little left of center in the image intent on stealing.

Here is a Herring Gull or, perhaps, a Ring-billed Gull cruising over the flock looking for a chance to steal some food from a flock of Greater Scaups.

The size of the Great Black-backed Gulls can be intimidating.  There is nothing to compare them to in this photo, but these gulls have a wing-span of about 5-1/2 feet, much larger than the ducks from which they steal food.

The duck in this picture is just diving below the surface (the most common defensive maneuver they use) to escape from what looks like it may be a Yellow-legged Gull. I have a lot of trouble identifying gulls, by the way, because they have so many variations.  Almost all species of gulls have about four different looks depending on age and season. It can be very confusing.  Notice the duck with a shell in it's mouth.

You would think when a duck drops a mollusk, it would sink like a rock and a gull would have no chance of recovering it, but it surprising how good that are at their thieving. Some of the bubbles around this gull were created by the duck that dropped the mollusk and dove under to avoid the gull.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Chesapeake Bay Tradition

There was a time on the Chesapeake Bay when ducks were so plentiful, that men found employment as market hunters. Using boats and other floating contraptions, they would go out with punt guns - which I am not sure would be better described as rather like a small cannon or a huge shotgun. You can imagine the devastation something like that might have if fired into a flock like the one I posted a few days ago. It didn't take too many years before duck populations were do depleted, that type of "harvesting" was brought to an end.

The tradition of duck hunting from small boats continues, however, as shown in this series of photos taken the other day.  These hunters were far enough out in the Bay that I didn't even notice them until their guns started occasionally going off. The wind was blowing about thirty mile an hour, so there were pretty good swells out there.  I don't think I would have braved being out there in a boat with so little freeboard.  If you look carefully, you can see a long gun on the left. You can also see little duck heads here and there. Hunters are not allowed to shoot "sitting ducks."

They weren't alone out there though. There is often a second boat which assists the layout boat. This one also contains a hunter with a shotgun.

It looked to me as though this larger boat was making wide circles around the smaller boat in order to scare up ducks that might hopefully fly within range of the smaller boat. I may be wrong about that, but they seemed to be working in tandem.

When they were done hunting, they stowed the smaller boat on the bow of the larger craft and all headed home. If I shot a duck under conditions like this, I think I would want to savor e-v-e-r-y bite!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Male Bufflehead

Buffleheads are the smallest of the ducks being just a little over a foot long. Females appear darker and have a small oval, white "ear" patch. Males appear much lighter with a large portion of their body being white. They also have a larger patch of white on the back half of their head making them easy to identify.  The dark part of the male head most often appears to be black (like the male on the right) but, in the right light, a sheen is visible which can take on a rainbow of colors (like the male on the left).

Their name derives from an old English word, "buffle," after which the buffalo is also named.  This is a pretty good view of the buffles on the sides of it's head.

Am I cute, or what? What colors appear just depend upon how the iridescence is reflected off the head.

Buffleheads are cavity nesters, often nesting in old woodpecker nests.

Their diet consists of small fish, insects, amphipods and mollusks. In this location, they often surface with a mollusk and you can see them cracking the shells open. Seagulls will often harass them, trying to steal their food.

Good bye! They are in the class of ducks called, "diving ducks." They dive in relatively shallow water. The waters where these photos are taken is probably no more than fifteen feet deep.  They are not considered a stiff-tailed duck, but notice how he is using his tail as a prop as he dives.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas!

How Should A King Come?

Isn't it like God to do the unexpected? And to do it in such a way that even a child can understand? One of my favorite contemporary Christmas songs is from an "album" by the Bill Gaither trio with lyrics written by Gloria Gaither. The tape I originally purchased got stretched long ago and this particular album has, as far as I know (and I have looked, and looked), never been transferred to CD or MP3 format. But it should be. It is one of the best medleys of original Christmas music I have ever heard. One of the songs highlights the paradoxical way in which the Savior of the world entered His creation. How profound that the Creator of heaven and earth should be born in a manger. I hope that you too can let that truth wash over you as we bathe in the great love of God for His lost world on Christmas morning.

How should a King come?
Why, Even a child knows the answer of course,
in a coach of gold with a pure white horse.
in the beautiful city in the prime of the day,
and the trumpets should cry and the crowds make way.
And the flags fly high in the morning sun,
and the people all cheer for the sovereign one.
Everyone knows that's the way that it's done.
That's the way that a King should come.

How should a King come?
Even a commoner understands,
he should come for His treasures, his houses and lands.
He should dine upon summer strawberries and milk,
and sleep upon bedclothes of satin and silk.
And high on a hill his castle should glow
with the lights of the city like jewels below.
Everyone knows that's the way that it's done.
That's the way that a King should come.

How should a King come?
On a star filled night into Bethlehem,
rode a weary woman and a worried man.
And the only sound in the cobblestone street
was the shuffle and the ring of their donkey's feet.
And a King lay hid in a virgin's womb,
And there were no crowds to see Him come.
At last in a barn in a manger of hay,
He came and God incarnate lay.
And the angels cried, "Glory, glory to God."
Earth was silent so heaven rang.
"Glory, glory to God."
Men were dumb so the angels sang.
"Glory, glory to God,
Peace on earth good will to men,
Glory in the highest."

Sunday, December 23, 2012


Look at this crazy tern! Terns are my favorite gull-type bird to watch.  Gulls, terns and skimmers are generally grouped together in bird guides. I have never seen a skimmer on the river, but after the nesting season, I will see terns fairly commonly. They will occasionally skim the water with their bill below the surface like a skimmer - at least briefly. But they can also dive straight into the water like this one is getting ready to do.  This one is concentrating so intently on it's target, that it is making it's body do whatever it takes to capture the prey successfully.  I don't think it has twisted it's head around but rather it has kept it's head aligned and twisted it's body around to keep it on target.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Shipping Lane

The Port of Baltimore is one of the major East Coast destinations for containerized cargo. Huge ships, like this one, ply the shipping channel along the eastern shore of the Chesapeake. Ship captains are not allowed to pilot their own vessel, but must board a Maryland state licensed pilot who is intimately familiar with the shipping channel as well as the shoals and reefs. Although the channel is fifty feet deep, there are times when there may be as little as three feet clearance between the hull and the bottom.

Two things strike me about this image. One is how complimentary the colors are. The other is it always makes me feel sad when I first see it.  Why? I don't know, but I can tell you it has nothing to do with wanting to be on board as it heads off to other parts of the world. If I want to go Europe, I'll take a plane.

Friday, December 21, 2012

M R Ducks

Some friends of mine who live right on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay kindly permit me to stand on their dock and freeze this time of year. Although I live only a few miles inland, I forget that, while the weather may seem balmy at the house, the weather on the Bay can be much different. I thought I was dressed warm enough, but by the time I left, I was wishing I had also worn a scarf, heavier gloves, and a balaclava to cover my face.  I won't make that mistake twice!

While I'm out there freezing, I take pictures of ducks with the idea that maybe I'll capture something special. The photos today are nothing special, but they do demonstrate the great number of ducks that make the Bay their winter destination.  These particular ducks appear to be mainly Greater Scaup, a common duck that winters along both coasts of the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, along the Gulf. In summer they are found mainly in western Canada and Alaska.


Thursday, December 20, 2012


Vultures, being very dark, are difficult to film. Sunny day or cloudy, I almost always try to give them more exposure than the camera calls for. If you use a normal setting, the bird will invariably appear too dark.  This photo of a Turkey vulture is one of the better ones I have taken. All vultures have featherless heads to keep from having carrion stick to them. The head of the Turkey Vulture is red while that of the Black Vulture is black. Notice how you can see sky right through their nasal passage. You can't tell from this photo, but the primary feathers are white underneath.

The Black Vultures, by contrast, display white feathers at the tips of their wings. They have a shorter, broader tail and you can see two toenails extending a little beyond the tail in this photo. Black Vultures seem to use more energy to fly as they have a shorter wingspan and do a lot more flapping than Turkey Vultures.

We have probably all seen how vultures will cooperate in searching for food by spreading out over a wide area and soaring. Turkey Vultures are a little better at spotting dead animals, but they also locate carrion by smell. On the river, the vultures spend a lot of time over water, which I always thought was odd since they cannot land in the water or pick anything up with their feet. Perhaps, though, they are eyeing both shores at the same time.

One morning, a flock of Black Vultures had found a large, dead catfish on the shoreline and proceeded to dispose of it - their gift to humanity.  There were actually more than three in this flock but only three were visible when I took these photos. The "nail" at the end of their beak helps them to tear up the flesh. They were also efficient at using their legs to hold the body in place while they tore off chunks of flesh.  They are probably not high on any one's list of favorite birds, but they do provide a needed service.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Unusual Sightings

Sometimes the camera is more useful in documenting something rather than producing "a work of art."  Taking photos of storm damage to your home to submit to an insurance company would be an example of this.  There have been a couple of times where I have seen birds flying at a far distance and could tell by the characteristics of their flight that they were something I hadn't seen before.

There is another useful thing about a camera and that is the ability to "digitally zoom" in on a picture, to increase something within the frame until it can be seen more clearly. Beyond documentation, the result is not going to be worth much, but it will allow you to confirm what you have seen or identify something you would never have been able to identify with the naked eye.

I saw these ducks from a far distance.  What attracted my attention was that, from a distance, the wings appeared to flicker on and off like a light switch being flipped on and off. I took a picture with the express idea that I would examine the birds closer when I got home on the computer.  But, once I looked at them, I couldn't identify them.  Yes, they looked similar to a duck in the guide, but those ducks were found way over on the West coast, Mexico, and parts of Texas. So, I figured that couldn't be it.

I found the name of a very knowledgeable birder in a newsletter another friend had given me, so I sent him the picture and asked if he could identify it. Well, wouldn't you know, it was that species - the Black-bellied Whistling duck - and my photo was hard evidence of a species that had been spotted several times, but no one had previously documented photographically. That was kind of cool.

Another time, my attention was attracted to another bird far in the distance.  The way if flew, which was like nothing else I had become familiar with in that area, was what got my attention.  Again, I took a picture and found upon looking at it on the computer that it had the unmistakable profile of an Ibis with the down-turned bill. It is probably the Glossy Ibis since there are only two ibises indigenous to the East coast and the other one is white. While their summer range extends into this region, it remains the only Ibis I have ever sighted.

Like the Sandhill Crane I saw recently, there are vagrant birds that, for whatever reason, can be out of the normal territory.  It is always a good idea to eliminate the more probable solutions before moving on to the exotic, however.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Flight Shots of the Sandhill Crane

I wanted to do one last post of some of the flight shots I took. If you remember, I related how a woman had stopped to talk and the crane took off while we were talking. It is very dissatisfying to try to talk to someone and also attempt to shoot a bird in flight. I know; it has happened to me several times. But, I did the best I could under the circumstances, trying to keep the bird within the frame. On the positive side, the bird flew through an area that made a good background.  It could have been houses and telephone lines in the background.  I just wish I could have savored the moment without the distraction.



Sandhill Cranes are monogamous birds, mating for life.  You have to wonder what one lonely bird is doing way out of it's range. Did it get blown off course in a storm?  Did it intentionally migrate to the East coast? Did it lose it's partner? Does it know it is way off course? Does it care? Does it wonder why it is not seeing any others of it's own species? Is it content to stay here until next spring or will it head west and meet up with others of it's kind? All questions that cannot be answered, but still I cannot help but wonder about.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Sandhill Crane. Other Photos.

Every once in a while, the Sandhill Crane would assume this posture, as though looking to the skies for others of it's kind. Or perhaps I am just imposing my own assumptions upon it.  But, it sure looked like it was looking for something in the sky. The down-turned "bustle" at the back end, the tertial feathers of it's wings, is one difference between cranes and herons.  Herons don't have that.

Here is another photo clearly showing a corn kernel it was eating. For you photographers - I kept my camera set on an ISO of 1600 which, for this particular model (Canon 40D) is fairly noisy.  I have found, however, that photographs will appear less noisy if they are not underexposed.  I was adding anywhere from 1/2 - 1.0 exposure value to the "correct" setting. They are not overexposed because it was a cloudy day. The few brief times the sun did appear, I backed off the EV by 1/2 to prevent the whites from blowing out. I also use a noise reduction program which I can recommend without equivocation: Imagenomic Noiseware. Once you learn how to take advantage of the settings, it is amazing how much the noise can be reduced without losing detail.

The crane seemed to know where it could find a puddle for slaking it's thirst. I think it has hung around this neighborhood long enough to know it's way around pretty well.  Where the best worms are, the best corn, etc.

It would first try to swallow the water without straightening up, but it never seemed able to get it down without putting it's head straight up in the air.

When last I saw it, it had crossed the road once more and entered yet another yard. It stopped along the edge to do a little preening and then got a little more active.  I had returned to my car at this point, but I decided to wait, hoping it might fly once more and I could try to get more flight shots. But it didn't fly and I gave up. One thing I am proud of (despite the temptation crossing my mind more than once) is that I have never spooked a bird intentionally so that I could take pictures of it flying. It crossed my mind on that day too, but I resisted the temptation.