Saturday, June 30, 2012

Perching in Trees

Something that seems a little strange is a great blue heron in a tree.  You don't think of them as a species that would hang out in trees.  Yet, they build their nests in trees, so it shouldn't seem all that unusual.  They are rather ungainly, however, when they do try to land in a tree and never seem quite comfortable perching on a branch. 

The fact that these two tolerate each other being so close tells me they are related either as mates or as parent and sibling because two unrelated herons would go to war if they got this close to one another this time of year.  They are in the trees because the tide was so high, the shoreline provided very few places to stand and fish.  The lower heron is using the opportunity to rest.  The upper heron is probably, in reality, fishing.  Great blue herons may not have "eagle eyes," but they do have excellent eyesight and I have been surprised at their ability to see fish from a distance. Notice the alert posture it has assumed as it looks out over the water.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Orchard Oriole

I have seen a number of birds over the years in the trees along the Patuxent that I have seen nowhere else.  There is one tree that, if you saw it, you wouldn't give it a second glance. But it has hosted more unusual birds (at least, unusual to me) than any other tree I know. Among the birds I have seen in it's branches that I have seen nowhere else are the Baltimore Oriole, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a black poll (male and female) and a young ground hog (yes, they can climb trees) munching on young shoots from the tree.

A few days ago, I saw a mostly yellow bird (I was looking up, so I was seeing the bottom of the bird) that I hadn't seen before and took some photos.  In almost all, different parts of the bird are hidden.  But I did take enough frames to record enough different parts to make an identification of it.  Actually, I sent it off to a friend who is a highly skilled birder and he made the identification of it.  I could only narrow it down to the family of orioles.

While he identified it as an orchard oriole, I still have misgivings.  The reason is the size of the bird.  An orchard oriole, the smallest of the orioles, is a little over seven inches in length, but I was struck by how large the bird was.  I would estimate it was closer to ten or eleven inches in length. I'm going to stick with my friend's ID, however.  He is a lot more experienced than I am.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Catch and Release

My wife and I use to be fishing fools.  If we weren't working, we were fishing.  And, although catching fish is a lot of fun, cleaning them isn't.  Scales and slime and a smell that won't wash out of your hands no matter what you do - yuck!

So, catch and release was not only sporting, but fit right into the idea of not having something else to clean when the day was done.  Truth be told, it was probably safer NOT to eat the fish we caught in many locations.  If you want a real eye-opener, go to the website of your local department of natural resources and read their recommendations on which fish to avoid eating.

Imagine what it must be like for an osprey after catching and eating a fish and feeding their chicks. I have never seen an osprey carry off the remains and neither have I seen any remains beneath a nest, so I assume the left overs just lay in the nest ripening.  I watched a fish crow on several occasions hanging out in a nearby tree, hoping to steal the remains of fish from the osprey nest.  Fish crows have a very distinctive nasal "caw" which makes them easy to identify.

Osprey have the same problem with slime and scales and smell as we do, however.  And their solution is not much different.  They wash their feet as best they can, but they do it in a unique way.  They fly just above the water - and I do mean JUST above the water and drag their feet to clean them.  When they start to lose speed, they lift up out of the water, fly a ways to get up to speed again, then drop down to the water to wash some more.  They may do that several times until they have gotten them clean again.  Now, the eagles - I'm not sure what they do.  But, they don't drag their feet in the water.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The New Marsh Overlook

The Town of North Beach built a small park overlooking the marsh.  They built a couple of gazebos and a small pier which allow visitors to watch the bird life in the marsh.  At face value, it is a nice facility.  But there are a couple of considerations that lessen it's value as a sight to watch or film birds. 

The first is that the marsh is fed by a creek which enters the Bay on the far side of the road.  Although the town occasionally dredges the opening into the creek, it quickly fills back in, cutting off the refreshing water the tides would push into the marsh.  Once it fills in with sand, the marsh becomes stagnant (and smelly) and the water level drops through the simple process of evaporation.  Much fewer birds are attracted to the marsh when this occurs.  The town really needs to build a bulkhead at the mouth of the creek to keep the sand from continually closing it off.

Although the little park could not have been sited anywhere else, it is actually on the wrong side of the marsh to be able to view the birds.  Bird activity peaks morning and evening, with morning probably being more active than evening.  When you stand at the park, you are looking directly into the sun and, if you can see any birds as you squint your eyes to look, you will be seeing their shadow side.  Not real good for birders who would like to identify what they are looking at or for photographers.

Take this photo of the same mallard family from yesterday.  Due to the limitations of all cameras, the contrast of the scene is too great to handle both shadows and highlights.  Even shooting 1 EV (exposure value) over the correct setting yielded a photo that was so dark that I could not make out any detail in the ducks.  So I had to add another two stops of light to the photo in post processing to see the ducks, but look what happened at the other end of the spectrum in the lightest part of the photo.  The water becomes almost featureless and without detail.  That is why I probably won't be going back to that park - at least, not in the morning.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Environmental Shot

Talk about having your hands full.  This mallard female has nine ducklings in her brood.  (If you count them, there are actually three all the way to the right where you can only see the head of one.) When the photographer cannot zoom in enough to get a close-up picture, its called an environmental shot.  That is half joke.  But the thing I like about this picture, and the reason I posted it, is for it's abstract look.  There are no real edges although you know they have to be there somewhere.  Well, no they don't.  I cropped in slightly from the top to eliminate the only real edge that was visible leaving kind of an impressionistic vignette around the border.  This is another photo recently taken at the marsh rather than the river.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Osprey Nest at the Marsh

I decided to spend a morning at the marsh to see what was going on there.  In short, not much.  While I was there, however, I took a few pictures of the osprey nest that a different electric company had built overlooking the marsh.  As you can see, the platform is both shallower and broader which, I think, is a much better design for these large birds.  As the young osprey get close to leaving the nest, they will test their wings by spreading them, much like the male is doing here, and jump into the air to try to soar above the nest a foot or two.  This nest allows them much more room to do this than the one at the river.  The jury is out on whether there may also be a third baby in this nest.  Bringing in sticks must be an addiction because they were continually bringing in more over the course of time I was there.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

What the...?

Disorienting, isn't it?  You can probably figure it out if you look at it for a minute.  The other day when the tide flooded over the road, I took a picture of the reflection created in the puddle which includes the striping on the road itself. That is probably the "clue" that helps you to figure out what you are looking at more than anything else. It is reminiscent of a double exposure on film.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Hovering Kingfisher

I have been fooled more than once by the size of a kingfisher.  When I first spotted this one hovering up river, for a split second I thought it was the much larger osprey at a greater distance than a kingfisher that was closer.  It is the same illusion as seeing a gnat out of the corner of your eye which is just a few inches away and thinking you are seeing a large bird way off in the distance that appears as a small dot in the sky.  But, despite that, kingfishers are also larger than you might think - or at least with their very deep wing beats they appear to be quite large.  I hardly ever have seen one hover like this.  Most of the time they will sit on a branch along the shore and spot fish.  I think, in this case, the kingfisher saw a fish and was trying to evaluate whether he could handle it. I believe it decided it was too large and moved on.

Friday, June 22, 2012

We're Gonna Need a Bigger Box

 A friend of mine, who lives in the neighborhood in Lower Marlboro where the osprey nest box is located, sent me two photos she had just taken.  With her kind permission, I publish them here. The first shows Momma and three babies.  The babies have already attained substantial size.

In this second photo, you can see all three chicks and the parents.  Try to imagine the chicks when they are the size of the parents and you can see why I have said the nest box is too small.  As the chicks get larger they will begin to test their wings and they need a little room to do that.  They will be falling over one another at that point - although the parents won't always be in the box.  Even now, the male stays in the nearby trees and brings in groceries and drops them off, then leaves.  In the time I was there yesterday, he was bringing fish to the family at the rate of about one an hour.

(With apologies to Roy Scheider who uttered the phrase, "We're gonna need a bigger boat," in the movie Jaws after seeing the size of the shark.)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Eagles Chasing Eagles

I don't want to give the impression that eagles only chase osprey that have caught fish in an attempt to steal it from them.  They also chase their own kind, just like seagulls will chases each other trying to steal their fish.  Come to think of it, so will many other species.  Anyway, an eagle caught a fish and two others (having eagle eyes) saw it from waaay across the river. As the former eagle flew up the river, the other two were on a trajectory to intercept it before it could reach it's destination.  So, then the chase was on.  The bird with the fish isn't always in lead.  In this photo, I think it is the middle eagle that actually has the fish.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Eastern Kingbird

Kingbirds draw their name from their fierce and aggressive nature. They will defend their territory and nest to the point of riding on the back of a hawk beating on it's head as it flies. I see them chasing the big birds all the time down at the river along with red-winged blackbirds. They are maybe just a little smaller than a robin and are members of the tyrant flycatcher family of birds.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Osprey Version of Feathering the Nest

Adding sticks to their nest must be some kind of addiction because the nest is already full and doesn't really need any more. It surprises me when I see them bringing in more sticks even when they have chicks in the nest.  Many sticks can be very unwieldy and I have seen one mate flee the nest when the other came in to drop one. An inspection of the ground underneath the nest will reveal sticks scattered randomly over a broad area where they accidentally dropped them trying to land on the nest box.

By contrast, there is an osprey nest built at the top of a large aluminum "telephone pole" holding up a major highway sign on Rte. 4 connecting the county and Washington. They had to build a surprisingly small nest because the top of the pole is not that large and there are no edges to hold the sticks in place.  We passed by there this morning and I saw two little heads sticking up.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Momma Osprey

This is the female from the nest box.  At least for now, she is recognizable by the displaced feather on her right wing which has been like that for a few weeks. They can look so intent when they are trying to figure what you are up to.  Her nest sits on a telephone pole right at the side of the road, but she doesn't like anyone walking under her nest.  She will start crying "Kew" when she sees someone approaching.  A jogger was running along the road, so I got ready to film because she will often take to the air in response to the "intrusion" and, sure enough, she took off and flew around for a minute or two. She decided to check me out while she was up there.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Canada Goose

The other day at the river, I heard a single goose whose honking grew increasingly louder.  I didn't think much of it.  Geese don't follow the same aerial roads most other birds follow and they often veer off in some other direction before they get anywhere close to me.  But this one's honking kept getting louder until I finally spotted it coming around the bend of trees down river and flying directly toward me.  Not one to pass up the opportunity, I started taking photos as it flew closer. As he lowered his landing gear I finally realized it intended on landing right where I was standing. That is, until it realized what I was.  Then it veered off and flew a little farther down river to land.

You can see it's wing feathers are in pretty sad condition.  They will normally molt their body feathers while they are nesting and their wing feathers separately before migration in the fall.  There is no difference in female or male, so there is no telling which this is.  Pair bonds usually last through at least one season and this one, being alone, may mean something happened to its mate.  Or, perhaps it's mate is taking care of the kids and this one needed some "me time."

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Cedar Waxwings

Cedar waxwings are medium-size berry-eating birds.  I have never seen just one.  They always travel in flocks and they love sugary berries from a variety of plants. They are quite noisy and my wife always recognizes their song before she sees them. They love the little blue berries found on cedar trees, which is where they got their name.  They have very striking markings including a noticeable crest, a black mask across their eyes and a yellow band on the tip of their tail. They are called waxwings because of a waxy looking red band on their wings which concentrates pigments from their diet of fruits. They are almost continually on the move as they search out new berry sources.  I just happened to see this flock as it passed through at the river recently.

Here is a closer photo of a waxwing that was traveling in a mixed flock of robins and cedar waxwings last fall.  They stripped most of the dogwood berries from the tree in our yard in a day.  The dogwood was loaded with berries.  You can see the mask and yellow band, but the crest is down and the red wing is not visible.

Friday, June 15, 2012


Beaver are mainly nocturnal, so this one which I saw early in the morning was probably headed home after a night of carousing.  Their dens are located within the dams that they construct, but they don't always build a dam.  Sometimes they build a large conical house and, I suspect, that may be true of this one.  If you look carefully, you will see it's flat tail just under the water.

I had one scare the bejeebers out of me one time while I was fishing.  I had just finished thinking how nice and peaceful and enjoyable the pond was when a beaver snuck up right behind me and slapped his tail down on the water as hard as he could to let me know he didn't like me being there.  I almost fell out of the one-man raft I was fishing from since I was sitting up on the edge.  They are edible by the way.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

I couldn't post this to Facebook after several attempts, so I decided to post it here and share it there. I saw this scene this morning while I was out on the Patuxent filming.  I thought it was a fitting scene to spotlight the flag on Flag Day.

Classic Great Blue Heron

This is the frame just before the one posted in "The Happy Heron."  You can see how the water is almost featureless as a result of overexposing the image slightly.  But, by sacrificing the water, it opened up the shadows underneath the bird's wing which would have been almost featureless if I had used the "correct" exposure value.  Many times it is a trade-off because the range of light is more than a a camera can handle and you have to decide whether it is better to over or underexpose.  It may seem counter intuitive, but a gray day can actually be better because the range of light is less and the camera can handle the entire gamut.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Happy Heron

I have never caught a great blue heron in quite this attitude.  He seems happy, doesn't he?  Usually I think of them as rather a taciturn breed.  I would estimate that from fifty to sixty percent of the time, a GBH will let out with it's raspy croak either just before it flies or just after it takes to wing. I always look to at least confirm what they are up to when the croak.

I routinely add 1 EV to my exposure if the bird has white on it and it is in the shade.  This over exposes a bit and opens up the shadow detail.  If the same bird is in sunlight, I will only add 1/2 EV to the exposure, because anything more will blow out the whites making them featureless and ugly and may ruin an otherwise good photograph.  Not everyone will understand what I just said, but the ones that do - you know who you are.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Needlerush and Pickerel Weed

Many photographic opportunities are open to interpretation, such as this photo of needlerush and pickerel weed. I could have exposed it so that the background was visible.  But it would have lost much, if not most, of the drama that is present in the photo as a result of underexposing slightly.  Underexposure causes the background to fall to featureless black, which keeps the detail of things in the back from distracting from the main subject.  Underexposing also brings the wonderful cross lighting to the forefront causing a relatively mundane subject to have high drama. It may not be exactly true to what was really present, but it fulfills the vision I had in my mind's eye. And that is part of what experience with your camera's settings allows you to do - creatively interpret an image.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Canada Geese

Here are two more image in a series of photographs where I experimented with trying to alter the photographicity (is that even a word?) into something less photographic. These have more of a watercolor or pen and ink look to them.  Photoshop has so many ways to work on a photo that reams of books have been written about how to use the program.  If you think you would like to get into photo editing but don't want to pay the steep price or learning curve of Photoshop, I recommend Elements, another Adobe editing program targeted at the consumer level that is much less expensive and easier to learn.  If it is something you find you are really interested in, you can always upgrade to Photoshop later.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Subtle Signs

Watching the osprey over time, I have picked up on some of the subtleties of the hunt.  If they are flying, very seldom are they NOT looking for a fish.  Why just fly over the river when you can keep an eye out for a fish at the same time? When they do spot a fish, they all tend to react in the same way - which is to stop flapping their wings and just soar, as if they want to concentrate all their attention into sizing up the situation (whether the fish is the right size, whether it is shallow enough, from what direction it needs to make it's approach). So, I watch them fly by, but when they stop flapping, I put my eye to the camera in readiness for the dive.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Possessions for the Taking

I don't own any property on the river.  Thanks to the generosity of three different people, I have been able to film from various spots along the river. It strikes me that despite not owning any property there, I have taken away possessions of which even the owners were unaware. I can lose the images on the camera, but I will always have the memories of the river in my mind.  Those mornings when the water sprites dance out into the middle of the river to join the greater dance.  The saturated reflections of the trees and marsh along the edge of the far side of the river.  The herd of deer crossing over to the marsh to hide from the guns on opening day of the hunting season. Memories are a possession that no one can take away from you.

Did you notice the Eagle in the top of the tree over on the right?

"As I watched my pond (it was not the author's 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)

Friday, June 8, 2012

Raising the Kids

I took this photo yesterday, the first day I was sure the osprey pair have chicks.  You can see two little heads peeking out over the top.  The second is behind the sticks and is a little harder to see.  The male was there when I first arrived back at my car (I park a couple of hundred feet from where the nest is), but he flew off.  He had brought the female a fish which she was feeding to the babies. So, after five years, they finally have produced offspring - but there is still a long way to go.

It was ospreys 5, eagles 0 yesterday.  The osprey were harassing the eagles more intensely than I had seen previously.  They were dive bombing them in the trees down near the bridge and the eagles were fussing at them.  Then, they would fly back to the nest.  Maybe something had occurred earlier before I got there.  I do know they do not want the eagles anywhere near their nest.

This nesting box was poorly thought out.  It is too deep and too small.  You can see how big the mother is and the father is the same size.  Once the chicks get as big as the parents, that box is going to seem extremely small.  Especially if she has three, which is not uncommon.  Imagine five birds the size of the mother sitting in that box.  There won't be any room to turn around and the chances of accidentally knocking one out of the nest are high, it seems to me.  I wish they had done a better job of designing it.  The one down at North Beach is much nicer being only half as deep and almost twice the area of this one.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Osprey Family

Here are the pair of osprey from the nest box on the telephone pole. I have been keeping an eye on the nest (from a distance) to see if I can tell if she has any chicks yet.  The other day it almost looked like she could be feeding babies, but it is also possible she was simply devouring the fish herself.  It seems to me, though, that the male has stepped up his feeding schedule and I have seen her join him in looking for fish once or twice, so maybe they are feeding chicks now.  A little head or two would answer the question.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Checking the Catch

I see this every once in a while where an eagle or an osprey looks down and back at their talons to check their catch.  Maybe they are trying to determine whether they need to reposition the fish in order not to drop it.  An osprey is more particular about how it carries a fish and always tries to carry it head forward in the most efficient and streamlined position. The eagles don't seem to care as much. Both can seem at times to be blasé about how they carry a fish, but I guess even if they only had them by one of those long talons, it might be enough. You can tell the fish is a shad because of how narrow it's appearance is.  From the side, they look like a large fish, but they are so laterally compressed that they are not nearly as big as you might think.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Feathering the Nest

The other morning I saw a bank swallow chasing what appeared to be a butterfly.  Despite their bright colors, I have never seen a butterfly get "picked off" by a bird.  Dragonflies, yes; butterflies, no.  So, it got my curiosity up immediately and I glassed it (in other words, I was only going to watch through the camera, using the telephoto as a monocular). 

It turned out to be a feather that the swallow was trying to capture, maybe to use in feathering it's nest.  The only reason I was able to take images of it (since they are normally way too fast and erratic in flight to keep up with them through the camera) is because the feather caused the bird to slow down to try to catch it.

Monday, June 4, 2012


The Thunderbird was a legendary creature in the history and culture of many indigenous Indian tribes of the Great Plains, Southwest, and Pacific northwest. The wings of this supernatural bird were believed to cause thunder. You can see the resemblance between this mythical creature and large birds like the fish hawk or osprey when they spread their wings like this one is doing. This is the male from the nest box on the telephone pole and he is bringing a shad back to the female of the nest.  I was trying to tell (from a distance) whether she was simply feeding herself or whether she might be feeding babies, but couldn't be sure. If she isn't yet, it shouldn't be too long.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Alternate Fishing Technique II

In a recent blog, I posted some photos of great blue heron fishing from flight.  Here is another method which truly amazed me when I saw it.  One early, foggy morning, I arrived at the river to see a great blue heron riding on a tree that was floating down the river.  It gave the heron the advantage of fishing in an area where it could normally only briefly fish - the middle of the river. Any successful fisherman will also tell you that fish are attracted to structure, so something like a large log would be like riding a giant lure. I think maybe that is when my esteem for the resourcefulness of the great blue heron began to grow.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Eagle Diet

This photo represents the first time I have been close enough to an eagle to take photos of them eating.  Well, that isn't including a mouse which you wouldn't have been able to see anyway.  Fish seem to be the majority of their diet on the rive where I film.  And why not?  Fishing is good and they are fairly easy to catch.  But, eagles generally do have a much broader diet and I am sure if the opportunity presented itself, they would go after other birds and mammals.

This particular eagle has a very commanding presence, even among the eagles. It is only now turning, so it is a pretty young bird, but it is already a force to deal with.  It is the same eagle I posted where it was sitting on the dead tree and also the one that was upset because the tree was no longer there.

This is also the first eagle I have ever heard vocalize and I was not impressed with it's call.  It is not nearly as loud or powerful sounding as you would think.  I have heard a few wrens that could give it a run for it's money.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Mirror, Mirror

This is the more classic view of the great blue heron rather than the technique used in yesterday's post.  The lighting was perfect for taking a lovely portrait of this bird.  While they are considered an icon in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, truth is they are fairly common across the country in rivers, lakes and streams.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine won the annual Chesapeake Bay Foundation calendar contest with an image of a great blue heron fishing from a rock in the middle of the raging rapids at Great Falls on the Potomac, so they are very adaptable.  I also know several people who have lost their entire school of koi or other goldfish in garden ponds to a marauding heron. One has since employed netting material over the pond - although she claims it is to keep her pack of pekingeses from falling in.